Russia: European Court of Human Rights rules ‘too late’ on foreign agents law
It was a day that many thought would never come. On 14 June, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) finally ruled that Russia’s foreign agents law violated the rights of civil society.
The law was first introduced in Russia in 2012 and has been progressively expanded to target non-governmental organisations (NGOs), media outlets as well as individual journalists, activists and other government critics. Under the legislation, any individuals or organisations receiving foreign funding are subject to rigorous audit checks. Failure to comply could lead to fines and even criminal charges.
A claim brought by more than 70 NGOs challenging the law was filed at the Court in 2013. In its judgment, the ECtHR said the law was not ‘necessary in a democratic society’ and that the legislation had created a ‘significant chilling effect’ on Russian civil society. It ordered Russia to pay $1.1m in damages to the claimants.
The long-awaited judgment has been welcomed across Europe as the crackdown on civil liberties in Russia has accelerated since the country invaded Ukraine. ‘It stresses in no uncertain terms that kind of disproportionate burdens on NGOs, that kind of stigmatising legislation and that kind of arbitrariness because of vague definitions are illegitimate and have no place in a Council of Europe member state,’ says Nils Muižnieks, regional director for Europe at Amnesty International, who served as the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights from 2012 to 2018.
He says the ruling could have global significance, but has come too late to help Russian civil society as it witnesses its most draconian crackdown for more than three decades. ‘I think it is important, but unfortunately, it comes way too late to help anybody in Russia,’ he says. ‘The practical impact right now will be zero because Russia's not engaging with the Court and not engaging with the rest of the world at all, but for the future of Russia, I think it's an important judgment.’
‘The practical impact right now will be zero … but for the future of Russia, I think it's an important judgment
Commissioner for Human Rights, Council of Europe, 2012-2018
The timing of the judgment has been the subject of strong criticism, almost four months into the war and three months after the Council of Europe expelled Russia following the invasion. ‘We feel neither relieved nor happy that we have such an important judgment too late,’ says Galina Arapova, Director of the Mass Media Defence Centre in Voronezh. ‘When there’s already crackdown and war, when the foreign agent hunt has become a weekly routine for the authorities, when it’s not just NGOs, which were designated as foreign agents, but now individually independent journalists, scientists, political and civil society activists, and even lawyers and members of the bar association.’
Arapova, a media defence lawyer who sits on the IBA’s High-Level Panel on Media Freedom, was awarded the IBA Human Rights Award in 2016. Like many human rights lawyers in Russia, Arapova was forced to flee the country after the invasion. She is the only Russian lawyer to be designated as a ‘foreign agent’ twice. The first occasion was in 2018 when the organisation that she heads was listed as a ‘foreign agent’.
The second occasion came on 8 October 2021, when she was individually designated. It was the same day that Russian journalist and Novaya Gazeta editor Dmitry Muratov was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Speaking to Global Insight now in exile, she says the fact that these two events coincided was ‘like a symmetric reply to the recognition of the free press,’ in Russia.
Mark Stephens, Co-Chair of the IBA’s Human Rights Institute, says the ECtHR’s ruling could discourage other countries from tarring NGOs with the same foreign agents brush. ‘This law actually started in China and the Russians copycatted it and have implemented it more aggressively,’ he says. ‘Other totalitarian states are beginning to use it as a methodology to criminalise foreign NGOs and indeed local NGOs who are likely to call out abuse.’
Since Russia first implemented the law in 2012, more than 460 individuals, media outlets and organisations have been designated as foreign agents according to independent civil society group Inoteka. Many have been stigmatised for their work, cut off from domestic funding as well as international funding and forced to close.
Following the Council of Europe’s decision on 16 March to expel Russia after 26 years, the ECtHR said it would continue to ‘deal with applications directed against Russia in relation to alleged violations’ of the European Convention on Human Rights until 16 September, when Russia officially ceases to be party to the Convention.
However, in early June, the Duma passed a series of bills proposing to tighten the already repressive foreign agents law, end the jurisdiction of ECtHR in Russia and revise the cut-off date for Russia to implement the Court’s rulings to 15 March. If signed into law by President Vladimir Putin, this would mean that the Russian Federation would not implement any rulings from the Court after that date, including the latest ruling on the foreign agents law.
Although Russia has long had a fraught relationship with the Council of Europe, Muižnieks believes these latest moves by Russia are directly in retaliation for its expulsion. ‘I think it's just their way of trying to avoid all accountability for the cases which are still pending and for judgments over this period of time,’ he says. ‘It was clear that cooperation was not going to be forthcoming from Russia going forward, but I think that this really kind of slammed the door in the face of the Council of Europe and the other member states.’
Image credit: European Court of Human Rights, Strasbourg, France. mrallen/AdobeStock.com