Updates from Russia: Intervening at the European Court of Human Rights and recent successes

November 2, 2015

The HIV epidemic in Russia and Eastern Europe is home to the world’s most rapidly expanding epidemic. Taken together, Russia and Ukraine account for over 85 percent of the people living with HIV in the region. In this critical context, the Legal Network continues to work with its partners on the ground to challenge the laws and attitudes that contribute to HIV prevalence and protect the human rights of “key populations” affected by HIV.

People who inject drugs are among these key populations. Though unsafe use of opioids is widely linked to the Russia’s HIV epidemic, the government criminally bans opioid substitution therapy (OST). A proven harm reduction measure endorsed by WHO, UNAIDS and UNODC, and widely used for decades in countries around the world with great clinical success, OST provides users of illicit drugs with a replacement drug (such as methadone) under medical supervision. Such interventions help to reduce the frequency of injections and dependency on illegal drugs, and thereby reduce HIV and HCV risk for people who inject drugs.

In the face of criminal prosecution and police harassment, three brave Russian activists from this population — Alexey Kurmanajevskiy, Irina Teplinskaya, and Ivan Anoshkin — have been challenging the ban on OST, with technical support from the Legal Network and its national partners, Andrey Rylkov Foundation for Health and Social Justice and Human Rights Association AGORA. After exhausting domestic remedies, the applicants turned to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which communicated their joint applications to the Russian government in May 2014. Moscow’s response, unsurprisingly, was that OST is an unsafe medical practice leading to higher rates of overdose. At the same time, the ECHR began accepting third-party interventions from the Legal Network and others, ensuring that the Court has access to an extensive record of evidence and solid legal arguments. In response, the Russian government has requested a postponement to gather further evidence. A few pro-government Russian NGOs that promote abstinence-only approaches to treating problematic drug use have also been granted leave to intervene. Once they file their submissions, Alexey, Irina and Ivan will have an opportunity to provide their comments to the Court, which should be the last hurdle before the merits of the case are heard.

We hope these joint OST cases will build on the successes we have already achieved in the region. For example, our technical support in the case of the arbitrary detention of Russian activist Denis Matveev led to a landmark decision. For the first time in the history of Russia’s courts, the Constitutional Court recognized that the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention should enjoy the same respect as UN bodies set up under international human rights treaties. Because the Working Group had concluded that Denis’s arrest and imprisonment were contrary to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Russian authorities must now reconsider his case under these new circumstances. With our local partners, the Legal Network is bringing the case forward for reconsideration in the Russian courts.

Another landmark victory took place at the UN Human Rights Committee, where we have been working, along with activists from Russia and Ukraine, since 2011. In April 2015, the Committee issued its first official document explicitly mentioning the human rights of people who use drugs in Russia and acknowledging their protection under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This achievement supports our work in the region and opens the door to bringing strategic cases to the Committee from states in the region that are not under the jurisdiction of the European Court (such as the countries of Central Asia).

While our ongoing work in Russia pursues a people-centered approach to drug policy, we plan to mobilize these successes in the service of broader global reforms, via the upcoming 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs. (For more information, read this short backgrounder on the UNGASS and why it represents a pivotal moment, and find out more about the need for reform at www.StoptheHarm.org.)

Check back for updates as we continue this work with our partners in Russia — and around the world — to make evidence-based policies a priority and protect the health and human rights of people who use drugs.