Did Russia Cancel the Supremacy of International Law?

By Mikhail Golichenko, Senior Policy Analyst, Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network

February 23, 2016

The amendments to Russia’s Federal Constitutional Law on the Constitutional Court, which came into force on December 15, 2015, simply enshrined into law a principle that was already implicit: the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation has the right to verify the constitutionality of any laws — including those Russia’s Parliament might introduce in order to execute a judgment made by international human rights courts. The media widely reported that Russia “ignores international human rights rulings.” However, ill-advised amendments to the law have become a hallmark of the current Federal Assembly; they are hardly newsworthy in themselves. Of far greater significance is the absence of an independent judiciary in the Russian Federation in general.

The December 15 amendments did not cancel the supremacy of international treaties. In fact, this supremacy is formalized in Part 4, Art. 15 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation, which reads as follows:

“Universally recognized principles and norms of international law as well as international agreements of the Russian Federation should be an integral part of its legal system. If an international agreement of the Russian Federation establishes rules, which differ from those stipulated by law, then the rules of the international agreement shall be applied.”

This provision is part of Chapter 1 of the Constitution, which, along with Chapter 2 and Chapter 9, cannot be modified by the Federal Assembly. To amend them, the Constitutional Assembly must convene. In other words, Part 4, Art. 15 of the Constitution is under special protection; it cannot be cancelled, even by the current Federal Parliament.

A much more important context in which to view the December 15 amendments concerns the inadequacy of law enforcement in the Russian Federation. The poor quality of law enforcement in Russia is based on the arbitrary, irrational and irresponsible use of state powers, compounded by corruption. Without these factors, the December 15 amendments would be meaningless because they theoretically could not prevent the execution of decisions made by international human rights courts. As it happens, these amendments are still meaningless, since even without them, an irresponsible, irrational and corrupt government can (and often does) neglect to execute the decisions of international human rights courts.

In other words, the application of international treaties is questionable under the current government, regardless of amendments to the existing laws. Even in the shadow of the December 15 amendments, international treaties would have a much better chance of being applied in Russia if the government in question were a responsible, accountable and legitimate power.

A longer version of the above post is available in Russian on the website of the Andrey Rylkov Foundation.