The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

Local News

March 25, 2014

Russia threat to post-WWII human rights

HERMITAGE — BRATISLAVA – While the Ukrainian crisis threatens the security of all the people of Ukraine, the actions of the Russian Federation also are a threat to the international laws, agreements, institutions and mechanisms which protect human rights that have been instituted regionally and internationally as a result of the atrocities committed in World War II.

Intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations and, in Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and The Council of Europe (different from the European Union) were created in the post-war era. Their purpose is to promote governments to respect, protect and fulfill the rights of their people to ensure peace and security for all, and to prevent what happened in World War II from ever happening again. The protection of human rights is considered by these organizations to be one of the essential elements which ensure peace and security for all within a state, in addition to the existence of basic democratic values, the rule of law, a civil society and effective minority protection.

When governments become members of these intergovernmental organizations, they voluntarily and legally obligate themselves to international laws on various subjects which are called treaties and which are legally binding on each state which ratifies them. In the case of the OSCE, governments sign agreements which are morally and politically binding on them. Among these treaties and agreements, there is a variety of international and regional human rights treaties and agreements.

International human rights treaties form part of the national legal system in each country which ratifies them. And while different rules apply from country to country as to whether national law or international law prevails when there is a conflict between the two, it is generally recommended that national governments enact rules which provide that the law which should prevail is the law which provides the greatest protection to all in the country.

Some of these human rights treaties protect the civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights of all persons in a country, while other treaties provide special protection for the rights of vulnerable, marginalized and disadvantaged groups such as refugees, asylum seekers, persons with mental or physical disabilities, women, children, ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities, etc.

States, when ratifying these treaties, also obligate themselves to provide compliance reports to committees of independent experts within international organizations (i.e. treaty monitoring bodies) who are mandated to monitor each country’s compliance with each provision of the treaty, and to indicate where the state is and is not in compliance, and to provide recommendations to promote fuller compliance. This treaty body monitoring process which takes place every three to five years for each country is the primary method of enforcing treaty obligations on states.

Among international organizations which promote and protect human rights, the OSCE is the largest regional security organization in the world. It is an intergovernmental organization which is comprised of 57 participating states from North America (Canada and the U.S.), Europe and Asia – and more than a billion people. In addition to promoting and protecting human rights, it supports democratic electoral processes, arms control measures, free, pluralistic and independent media, counter-terrorims measures, skilled and respected police services, economic and environmental activities, good governance and the rule of law, and measures to counter and prevent human trafficking.

The OSCE process also consists of a diplomatic process in which ambassadors from each participating state meet each week in Vienna to attempt to resolve or prevent conflicts within or among the participating states. The OSCE also deploys field missions in post-conflict zones to contribute to peace-building efforts and election observation missions during the pre-election, election and post-election periods.

The OSCE participating states also create morally and politically binding documents which provide standards for human rights, basic democratic values, rule of law, civil society, freedom of the media, protection of national minorities, etc. One of those documents, the OSCE Budapest Document (1994) is particularly significant because it states in Chapter VIII, paragraph 2 that, “Human rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the rule of law, and democratic institutions are the foundation of peace and security, representing a crucial contribution to conflict resolution. The protection of human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to national minorities, is an essential foundation of democratic civil society.’’ Thus the OSCE links security concerns and human rights in a unique manner.

Also in Europe, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, which protects human rights in all European countries, is one of the most effective supranational human rights enforcement systems in the world. When European states become members of The Council of Europe, they ratify the European Convention for the Protection of Fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms which enables Europeans to file a claim against a state when the state has violated their rights under the Convention and they do not have effective remedy available to enable them under the national legal system to adjudicate the violation under the national law.

As members of The Council of Europe, European states generally ratify the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Both of these documents provide special protection for national minorities in European states, and in particular, the latter document balances the responsibility of national minorities to learn the majority language of the state with their right to teaching of and instruction in their mother tongue.

Thus Europe has a diverse array of human rights institutions and laws to prevent and resolve conflicts by addressing their root cause, thus preventing human rights violations or by providing access to a remedy for those which have occurred. In particular, these institutions and laws provide effective remedies for all persons residing in European states to uphold their rights. Russia and Ukraine are members of the above mentioned organizations and are parties to the human rights treaties mentioned above with the exception that Russia is not a party to the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

The Russian Federation, though, has not availed itself of any of the European security organizations and mechanisms to address it concerns over the ousting of President Yanukovych and what it sees as the need to protect Russian citizens in the Crimea against what it asserts are violations of their human rights. Nor has it encouraged Russian citizens in Crimea to use human rights mechanisms if they believe their rights have been violated. Rather, it has chosen to unilaterally deploy its troops stationed in Crimea to seize control of Ukrainian military installations and government offices under the false pretext of “protecting’’ the Russian citizens in Crimea. There is little to no evidence though of human rights violations which would in any way justify such an extreme action on the part of the Russian Federation. Instead, the unilateral actions of the Federation increase the potential for violations of the rights of other national minorities in Crimea such as the Tartars and even those who wish to remain part of Ukraine.

The international community overwhelmingly has condemned the actions of the Russian Federation in Crimea as a flagrant violation of the UN Charter Article 2 (4) which states that, “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.’’ This principle also violates many of the guiding principles of the OSCE including:

• Sovereign equality, respect for the rights inherent in sovereignty (note: sovereignty is the supreme and independent power or authority in Government as claimed by a state).

• Refraining from the threat or use of force.

• Inviolability of frontiers and territorial integrity of states.

Further, the Russian Federation has supported an unlawful referendum held by Crimean authorities in order to determine if the people of Crimea want to stay within Ukraine or whether they want to become a part of the Russian Federation. The Russian Federation asserts that in doing so it supports the right of self determination of the people of Crimea. This view does not take into account that the legal (and more proportionate) way of protecting this right is prescribed in articles 73 and 2 of the Ukrainian Constitution which state that any such decision on accession must be reached via a nationwide referendum, and not merely a regional one, and that the sovereignty of Ukraine extends throughout its entire territory.

Also the Russians have used the NATO intervention in Kosovo as a justification for the invasion of Crimea, but the two situations are simply not comparable. The purpose of the NATO intervention was to stop the wholesale slaughter of civilians in Kosovo by government-led forces which caused the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, while President Putin has even admitted on March 4 that there have been no injuries to Russian citizens in Crimea.

Finally, the Russian Federation most recently has signed a treaty to make Crimea a part of the Russian Federation. Thus, hypocritically, while the Russian Federation stood firmly against the accession of Kosovo from Serbia, it now supports the accession of Crimea through the use of tactics which clearly and unequivocally violate international law. This absorption of Crimea into the Federation could even produce a ripple effect as there are many Russian-speaking communities which are within the borders of former Soviet satellite countries which may begin to consider whether they want to secede and become part of the Russian Federation.

Currently, the U.N., OSCE and the Council of Europe are all working overtime to find a peaceful solution to the ever-deepening Ukrainian crisis, but they are severely hampered by the Russian Federation’s intransigent position on Crimea despite virtual global condemnation of their actions. Further, the Russian mischaracterization of Yanukovych as a democratically elected president who was ousted through an unlawful process as opposed to an undemocratic autocrat with authoritarian tendencies who was forced out by a popular uprising, flies in the face of reality.

Such unilateral and blatantly unlawful conduct on the part of the Russian Federation constitutes one of the most serious threats in many years to peace, security and political stability not only in Ukraine and Europe, but within the international community in general. But what is equally disturbing is that the Russian Federation’s actions undermine and demean the international human rights laws, institutions and protection mechanisms that have been implemented by intergovernmental organizations over the last 69 years which obligate states to respect, protect and fulfill the human rights of their people as a means of conflict prevention and resolution. Further, it is a large setback to human rights defenders throughout the world who promote the genuine implementation of international human rights laws and standards within national legal systems in every country.

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