Russia: States may refuse implementation of ECtHR’s ultra vires judgments, says Constitutional Court

i_1021A law court that does not respect the law will sooner or later itself lose the respect of those on whom it pretends to pass judgment. This is the lesson that the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) is currently learning, following a long series of controversial decisions.

Responding to an application submitted by a group of Members of the State Duma, the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation has issued a binding legal opinion in which it declares that judgments of the ECtHR are to be considered binding in Russia only under the  the condition that they respect the general interpretive principles for international treaties as set out in Art. 31 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT).

The Constitutional Court’s finding relates to no case in particular, but clarifies in a general and horizontal manner the conditions under which the European Human Rights Convention can be applied in Russia.

Here is the decisive passage:

“Закрепляя в статье 26 фундаментальный принцип международного права pacta sunt servanda (каждый действующий договор обязателен для его участников и должен ими добросовестно выполняться), Венская конвенция устанавливает также общее правило толкования договоров, предусматривающее, что договор должен толковаться добросовестно в соответствии с обычным значением, которое следует придавать терминам договора в их контексте, а также в свете объекта и целей договора (пункт 1 статьи 31). Таким образом, международный договор является для его участников обязательным в том значении, которое может быть уяснено с помощью приведенного правила толкования. С этой точки зрения если Европейский Суд по правам человека, толкуя в процессе рассмотрения дела какое-либо положение Конвенции о защите прав человека и основных свобод, придает используемому в нем понятию другое, нежели его обычное, значение либо осуществляет толкование вопреки объекту и целям Конвенции, то государство, в отношении которого вынесено постановление по данному делу, вправе отказаться от его исполнения, как выходящего за пределы обязательств, добровольно принятых на себя этим государством при ратификации Конвенции.”

In English:

“Having established in Art. 26 the fundamental international law principle pacta sunt servanda (each treaty that has acquired force of law is obligatory for its parties and must be fulfilled in good faith) the Vienna Convention also establishes the general rule of interpretation of treaties, providing that a treaty should be interpreted in good faith in accordance with the ordinary meaning to be given to the terms of the treaty in their context and in the light of its object and purpose (Art 31 (1)). Therefore the international treaty is binding for its participants in the meaning that can be deduced from it using the aforementioned rule of interpretation. From this point of view it follows that if the European Court of Human Rights, in the course of examining a particular case, interprets some provision of the [European] Convention on Human Rights in a way that attaches to the words used therein another meaning than the ordinary one, or in a manner contrary to the object and purpose of the Convention, the Respondent State to which the judgment is addressed has the right to refuse its implementation as going beyond the of obligations that this State has freely accepted when ratifying at the Convention”.

It is a known fact that the Russian Federation’s human rights record is not the best one, and that it is condemned for violations of the Convention more often than any other country. Thus it seems quite easy for defenders and supporters of the ECtHR’s judicial activism to dismiss the Constitutional Court’s statement as being driven by the country’s political self interest. Nevertheless, the substance of the Constitutional Court’s argument can hardly be contradicted – and it constitutes a resounding rebuttal of the ECtHR’s notorious “living instrument” theory. Once the supreme judicial instance of one major European country has made such a statement, it is not unlikely that other countries will follow the example.