Director of the Foreign Ministry’s Department for Humanitarian Cooperation and Human Rights and Commissioner for Human Rights, Democracy and the Rule of Law Anatoly Viktorov in an interview with Rossiya Segodnya
Question: Why are we unable to do anything in the case of Viktor Bout, Konstantin Yaroshenko and many other Russian citizens who have been serving sentences in US prisons, many of them for years? Has Washington advanced any preconditions for turning them over to us, for example an exchange of prisoners?
Anatoly Viktorov: The Russian consular staff regularly visits Viktor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko and maintains contact with their lawyers and families. They have taken action several times to alleviate these Russian citizens’ prison terms and conditions and to ensure their right to receive quality medical care.
Overall, we are unable to get things moving in the cases of the Russians who are serving prison terms in the United States because of the Americans’ categorical unwillingness to revise their sentences although they were often tried on contrived charges. Moreover, former Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland told us frankly that Viktor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko, who had flatly refused to plead guilty in court, would serve their full sentences to teach others not to follow suit. In other words, their fate should make our other compatriots who happened to be caught in the grip of “American justice” more compliant.
The Russian Foreign Ministry continues to do everything possible to return these Russian citizens home. We regularly discuss this issue with American officials at different levels, including high levels. This issue has been discussed many times during Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s conversations with his former and current counterparts – Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and Rex Tillerson.
In February 2017, a personal written appeal for Yaroshenko’s pardon was delivered to President Donald Trump on behalf of the pilot’s mother. We are sorry to say that she did not survive the negative response she received from the US Department of State. Her heart stopped on May 7.
In June this year, Yaroshenko’s spouse sent a new appeal to President Trump, asking him to grant his mother’s last wish by releasing Konstantin who is suffering from numerous grave diseases. However, Washington officials refuse to discuss the situation with the illegally sentenced Russian pilot in spite of the obvious humanitarian circumstances. This is also true of our initiative, which we have proposed several times, that Konstantin be turned over to Russia in keeping with the 1983 Council of Europe Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons.
Question: The State Duma has adopted a law under which foreign media outlets receiving funds from abroad can be declared foreign agents. The Foreign Ministry has submitted its conclusions on this law. Will this law infringe on freedom of expression just as the United States has done with regard to Russian media outlets?
Anatoly Viktorov: This law has been adopted in response to US actions against the RT television network and the Sputnik radio and news agency and does not infringe on freedom of expression in any way.
Question: What is Russia’s attitude to the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) adopted by judges for whom Russia did not vote due to the restrictions on its work in PACE? Are these decisions legitimate? Will we confirm our intention to comply with the ECHR decisions in conditions of the current crisis?
Anatoly Viktorov: The situation in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) is fairly depressing. Russia has not taken part in its sessions since the end of 2014 when the powers of our delegation were seriously restricted. At the same time, many important decisions are within its competence, for instance, the election of judges to the ECHR. In the meantime, 18 out of 47 ECHR judges assumed office in 2015-2017.
It is important to understand that the ECHR is a mechanism to ensure compliance of the Council of Europe member states with their commitments under the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
This judicial body has serious powers. Implementation of its resolutions is monitored by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe (CMCE). In this context it is particularly important for the Court to make well-balanced decisions and substantiate all its points with impeccable legal arguments, relying on the norms of international law and preventing any willful, broad interpretations.
It should not be forgotten that the Convention and the Court that was instituted in accordance with it are actually the creations of the High Contracting Parties, that is, the member states of the Council of Europe. It is the states that are playing the key role in developing international law and international relations. In signing international treaties they assume certain commitments but at the same time they are vested with rights to form relevant judicial entities that, in turn, will subsequently interpret these commitments, proceeding, once again, from the stated wishes of these countries.
In this context the Russian Federation is justifiably concerned over its inability to make decisions on such important and far-reaching issues as the election of ECHR judges. Indeed, the legitimacy of decisions adopted against this country by the body in whose formation its stated wish was not considered is disputable. Hence, the implementation of such decisions can be also put into question.
If nothing is done about Russia’s participation in PACE, similar problems may emerge as regards other executives who are also elected in PACE – the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe in the near future, and the Secretary General in a more remote future.
Question: How many of the court’s decisions are implemented in Russia?
Anatoly Viktorov: According to the Justice Ministry of Russia, we implement the majority of decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, or more precisely, about 99 per cent of decisions. Our colleagues from the Council of Europe have confirmed this. According to the council’s statistics, Italy is 50 per cent ahead of Russia (2,350 versus 1,573) in terms of cases at different stages of consideration by the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers (CM) in 2016, while the population of Russia is more than twice as big as that of Italy. The other countries leading by the number of such cases are Turkey (1,430 cases) and Ukraine (1,147), which is only slightly smaller than in Russia although our population is several times larger than the population of these countries. In other words, the statistics that you have asked about should be regarded in the context of several factors. Moreover, it should be said that the hearing of any case by the council’s Committee of Ministers does not mean that the country in question has refused to implement the court’s decisions. For example, Russia took the necessary measures to implement the court’s decisions on 261 cases, Italy on 108 cases and Ukraine on only four cases in 2016.
The CM has not yet published the data for 2017, but we expect the statistics to change a little in light of recent developments. On October 12, 2017, the court’s Grand Chamber adopted a decision on the Case of Burmych and Others v Ukraine, the applications under which were part of a group of 12,143 follow-up applications that concern the non-enforcement of domestic court decisions in Ukraine. The court pointed out this structural problem of the Ukrainian justice system back in 2009 in the case of Yuriy Nikolayevich Ivanov v Ukraine, yet Ukraine has not implemented the court’s decisions to this day.
In other words, the scale of non-enforcement of some of the court’s decisions in Russia should not be overestimated. Actually, the issue only concerns a few of the court’s decisions, which are based, in our opinion, on wrong premises and on positions that contradict the court’s subsidiary/auxiliary role and sometimes even international law.
Question: Russia has not supported the UN General Assembly resolution on human rights in North Korea, saying that it rejects the UN human rights agencies’ practice of submitting selective and lop-sided resolutions on the situation with human rights in individual countries. Nevertheless, do we accept the fact of gross human rights violations in North Korea? Who is responsible for this? What can be done to improve this situation?
Anatoly Viktorov: We believe that the states themselves are responsible for upholding and protecting human rights in their national territories.
No country is ideal in terms of the situation with human rights. On the other hand, some countries, which have come to believe in their infallibility, prefer to close their eyes to their own problems with human rights and think that they have the right to tell others what they must do and force their arguable human rights concepts on others regardless of their cultural and historical specifics. These countries sometimes use the human rights rhetoric to achieve their own immediate political goals. This approach often has tragic consequences for entire nations and regions. The international community can draw conclusions about the destructiveness of this approach from the developments in the Middle East, North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Russia does not accept patronising and label-sticking. Practice has shown that this does not help improve the situation on the ground but only results in some countries’ isolation and refusal to cooperate. We believe that the international community should deal with any human rights grievances through a constructive and equal dialogue based on mutual respect, technical assistance provided at the request of the concerned countries, as well as the exchange of positive experience in dealing with human rights problems.
North Korea is a signatory to several international treaties on human rights, under which it must submit regular reports on compliance with its obligations under these treaties to the concerned international monitoring mechanisms.
In addition, the UN Human Rights Council launched a process of Universal Periodic Review (UPR) many years ago. The UPR has proved to be a useful tool of international monitoring of the human rights situation in individual countries. North Korea has participated in two UPR cycles and is to submit a report under the third cycle in 2019, when all interested states can voice their concerns and make recommendations on improving the human rights situation in North Korea. Russia will certainly take part in this dialogue with North Korea in the spirit of equal cooperation based on mutual respect.