UK risks underestimating the dangerous signal that withdrawal from the ECHR would send to Russia.

During a conversation in December 2016 with a representative from the Council of Europe (the body ultimately responsible for upholding the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR)) it was noted that Russia’s 2015 ruling allowing its courts to override judgments handed down by the ECtHR should be seen in a broader context of non-compliance amongst certain signatory states. The official noted that the UK’s decision to refuse to comply with the ECtHR ruling on prisoners’ voting rights and Prime Minister May’s repeated statements detailing her desire to withdraw from the ECHR were a great boon to Russia in justifying its actions. This contention was echoed in a recent House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) report, which stated:

 

UK withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights would risk sending a signal to Russia that it can freely disregard international human rights norms at home and abroad, and would undermine UK support for the work of human rights groups in Russia.”

 

Those who support withdrawing from the ECHR might well argue that Russia pays little heed to international criticism on human rights issues and that it has no respect for international law, questioning the relevance of a UK withdrawal to Russia’s behaviour. Firstly, although it is true that Russia is not easily classified as a defender nor champion of human rights and there is no doubt that Russia has and continues to act in defiance of international law, it does not necessarily follow that it is impervious to criticism or diplomatic pressure in this area. Although it is tempting to imagine Russia as a unitary black ball where “l’état c’est Putin”, this is not the case. There are influential people and politicians who, at least to a certain extent believe in the value of certain freedoms and rights and who dislike being criticised by their European “partners”.  Furthermore, examining the evidence, it is clear that the ECtHR and the concept of human rights do have effects and implications on Russian behaviour. Take the case of Alexander Navalny, an opposition politician and anti-corruption campaigner whose politically motivated fraud conviction, which had stopped him declaring his candidacy for president in 2018, was deemed illegitimate by the ECtHR and was subsequently overturned by Russia’s Supreme Court. Admittedly he has since been reconvicted by the same provincial court that handed down the initial sentence, but significantly the Russian Supreme Court had the power to completely reject the ECtHR decision, yet declined to do so. That decision raised Navalny’s profile further, defended him from the initial injustice and has put real pressure on the authorities to find a way to accommodate him in the 2018 presidential elections. This demonstrates that Russia is aware and to an extent receptive to international pressures on human rights issues.

Secondly, if Russia really was impervious to criticism and didn’t care at all about being perceived to defend human rights it would have already unilaterally withdrawn from the ECHR. Instead it has found a workaround to give its courts breathing room whilst maintaining a certain level of acceptable involvement. Given the opprobrium that it received for its less extreme solution, were it to have withdrawn completely the consequences for its reputation could have been even more severe.

Given the UK and broader world reaction to Russia’s actions surrounding the ECHR, a UK withdrawal would make it difficult for the UK to directly criticise Russia for doing the same. Furthermore, if it is a clear sign of Russia’s disregard for human rights for it to unbind its judges from ECtHR rulings, then one must assume that the international reputational damage to the UK if it in turn left could be just as significant. The UK’s putative withdrawal from the ECHR has a direct impact on Russia as it makes it more acceptable for Russia itself to withdraw, something which would impact human rights organisations working in Russia, many of whom the UK government supports. Arguably, the UK’s standing in the world would also be diminished by such a decision. Indirectly this would affect the UK’s ability to interact with and influence Russia in a positive way.

Not only would the UK be giving Russia free rein to do things which we publicly oppose on the international stage, but  our ability to pursue our foreign policy objectives, in particular in relation to Russia. , would be likewise diminished. Whilst it is definitely worth considering how we can adapt our policy towards Russia in general, including discussing whether human rights should dominate the discussion to the same extent as they do currently, it would be a mistake to undermine the entire concept as well as our own moral authority by withdrawing from the ECHR. At such a sensitive time for the UK, and with so many eyes carefully watching our international position, the signal the UK would demonstrate through withdrawal could far outweigh any benefits it might bring.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG. The BFPG is an independent not for profit organisation that encourages constructive, informed and considered opinions without taking an institutional position on any issue.
James Oates
jo@bfpg.org.uk

James Oates is a Masters Student of Governance and Global Affairs at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. He has a wide range of international professional experience, having worked for the EU Delegation to the Russia, a Moscow-based tech start-up, and a UK export consultancy.