Novichok, the Russian term of ‘newcomer’ and a deadly group of nerve gasses developed in the former Sovjet Union, was the poison used by the Kremlin to disable political activist Aleksej Navalny.
Since 2003, many attempts have been made to assassinate Russian activists, journalists and opposition leaders, often without ‘success’. The Kremlin has always been accused of violating article 2 (the right to life) and article 3 (Prohibition of torture), but the European Court of Justice in Strasbourg does not really punish Russia. Professor of Human Rights Antoine Buyse explains how Russia is ‘punished’ for violating human rights.
“The ECHR finds that human rights have been violated after an investigation, but an international trial often fails to agree. Every year there are thousands of cases against Russia and if the ECHR-laws are not complied with, then Russia usually get away with it with a fine.”
Navalny has already sued Russia four times in court for violating his human rights. All cases were won by Navalny but there is little to see from any reforms in the adherent of the Human Convention in Russia. “The European Court said that the Kremlin needs to implement broader reforms, but there is no international enforcement to control this”, Buyse says. “It is a matter for European countries to apply pressure to implement these reforms. Then you come to the field of international diplomacy.”
Trying to assassinate Navalny has broader implications for the opposition in Russia. Buyse explains why these cases occur in Russia: “With the poisoning cases, the Kremlin want to scare its opposition. People will be more cautious and less critical. The chilling effect, putting pressure on a person to limit their rights. So that in itself is a violation of human rights. It’s like throwing a rock into the water, the vibrations that cause the stone in the water stand for the silence of activists in the future.”
However, the effects of the stone in the water do not apply to the reforms in Russia. There’s not much of that yet. “The only consequences for Russia are mainly to pay compensation to the victim who’s right has been violated. Almost nothing changes structurally,” says Buyse. “It takes a while for Russia to pay the compensation to the victim. It happens, but it takes time.
The question is how many violations are still needed to punish Russia, but it seems that there are few options. “It is a dilemma, remove Russia from the Council of Europe could be a punishment, but it is not a convenient move. Applying economic sanctions and political pressure on Russia also proves to be extremely difficult. But the symbolic value of a ruling of the European Court is very important, do not underestimate the value of it. The fact that it is legally established by an independent judge helps politicians and diplomats to exert diplomatic pressure. And the attention that a case brings is safe for the people. If they were invisible, the Russians would be free to lock up such a person without anyone is noticing. It is not the most effective, but it is not without its effect.”