Seeking Life, Finding Justice: Russian NGO litigation and Chechen Disappearances before the European Court of Human Rights

Abstract

This article presents findings from an interview study of human rights practitioners who assist relatives of the disappeared from Chechnya with their complaints before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). These practitioners work for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The study contributes to the scant literature on NGO litigation before the ECtHR and to the social scientific literature on how human rights are actively practiced. It investigates the NGOs’ intermediary position between the ECtHR and the relatives of the disappeared in Chechnya. Consequently, this article asserts that a significant aspect of this position lies in the practitioner’s capacity to mediate between an ambition to externalize local grievances to the ECtHR and the relatives’ hopes that the ECtHR can bring certainty to the uncertain loss of their disappeared relatives. From this position, several dilemmas emerge as to how international legal mechanisms can provide remedies following disappearances.

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Fig. 1
Fig. 2

Notes

  1. 1.

    Lisa Ott discusses the various legal interpretations of enforced disappearances (Ott 2011).

  2. 2.

    While there is much optimism on the role of NGOs in human rights advocacy, some scholars have argued that their role in the domestic implementation of human rights is ambiguous because of their varying beliefs in justice (Boesenecker and Vinjamuri 2011). In addition, the NGOs’ working capacity and professionalism highly depends on their competition with other NGOs to secure foreign funding (McIntosh Sundstrom 2006). Another problem of associational life entails the question of who NGOs represent and how they mediate voices (Edwards 2009). The role of NGOs in Russia has been discussed extensively (see Alapuro et al. 2004; Cook and Vinogradova 2006; Evans et al. 2006; Salmenniemi 2010).

  3. 3.

    http://www.echr.coe.int/ECHR/EN/hudoc

  4. 4.

    This amounts to 40.925 pending applications (ECtHR 2011a).

  5. 5.

    Khashiyev v Russia (57942/00), Akayeva v Russia (57945/00), Isayeva v Russia (57947/00), Yusupova v Russia (57948/00), Bazayeva v Russia (57949/00), Isayeva v Russia (57950/00); applicants were represented by EHRAC.

  6. 6.

    EHRAC also works on similar litigation programs in cooperation with lawyers in Azerbaijan and Georgia.

  7. 7.

    http://www.khrp.org/index.php

  8. 8.

    Interview, acting director, Moscow, June 2011.

  9. 9.

    Telephone Interview, NGO representative, Utrecht, The Netherlands, March 2012.

  10. 10.

    http://www.srji.org/en/about/

  11. 11.

    Interview, Nizhny Novgorod, lawyer, May 2011.

  12. 12.

    Interview, lawyer, Moscow, November 2010. The ECtHR accepts applications when the applicant has exhausted all domestic legal corridors. However, when applicants file a case at the local prosecutor’s office in Chechnya, the criminal investigation is frequently suspended (Sperling 2009). Initially, there was no way for a Chechen complaint regarding a disappearance to be finalized in a decision by a domestic court. The ECtHR nonetheless recognized this obstacle and accepted Chechen cases, despite the frequent counter claim by the Russian government that applicants had not exhausted all domestic remedies (Leach 2008).

  13. 13.

    I thank the anonymous reviewer for pointing this out to me.

  14. 14.

    I thank the anonymous reviewer for pointing this out to me.

  15. 15.

    SRJI represented Bazorkina. A rare public hearing was held in the ECtHR’s Grand Chamber.

  16. 16.

    Interview, lawyer, Moscow, November 2010.

  17. 17.

    Correspondence, lawyer, March 2012; Interview, lawyer, Moscow, November 2010.

  18. 18.

    Violations of Article 2 (both substantive and procedural: positive obligation to protect life and failure to investigate the events), Article 3 (ill-treatment in relation to the mental well-being of relatives), Article 5 (right to liberty and security), and Article 13 (right to an effective remedy).

  19. 19.

    Interview, lawyer, Moscow, June 2011.

  20. 20.

    http://www.srji.org/en/legal/security/. The lawyers and organizations were targets of intimidation by the authorities as well (Lemaître 2010). In particular, SRJI had problems with its registration in Russia on several occasions (Bigg 2012).

  21. 21.

    Interview, lawyer, Moscow, June 2011.

  22. 22.

    Telephone Interview, lawyer, Nazran, Ingushetia, May 2011.

  23. 23.

    Interview, lawyer, Moscow, June 2011.

  24. 24.

    Cooperation occurs in the form of NGO roundtables and legal training of domestic lawyers.

  25. 25.

    Interview, lawyer, Moscow, June 2011. See also the Zubayrayev v. Russia (67797/01) judgment.

  26. 26.

    Interview, three lawyers, Moscow, December 2010.

  27. 27.

    Interview, lawyer, Moscow, June 2011.

  28. 28.

    Interview, lawyer, Moscow, June 2011.

  29. 29.

    Interview, lawyer, Moscow, November 2011.

  30. 30.

    Interview, three lawyers, Moscow, December 2010.

  31. 31.

    Interview, lawyer, Moscow, November 2010.

  32. 32.

    Correspondence, Lawyer, March 2012.

  33. 33.

    Interview, lawyer, Moscow, June 2011.

  34. 34.

    Key note speech, Upendra Baxi, seminar “Critical Perspectives on Global Governance” at the University of Helsinki, 7 May 2010.

  35. 35.

    Interview, three lawyers, Moscow, December 2010.

  36. 36.

    Interview, three lawyers, Moscow, December 2010.

  37. 37.

    Telephone Interview, lawyer, Ingushetia, May 2011.

  38. 38.

    It is not certain whether the lawyers in all cases pursue an Article 2 application despite the wishes of the applicant.

  39. 39.

    The ECtHR addresses the individual suffering of the relatives because of a lack of information and the authority’s noncooperation by ruling violations of article 3 (inhuman and degrading treatment).

  40. 40.

    Interview, three lawyers, Moscow, December 2010.

  41. 41.

    Interview, lawyer, Moscow, June 2011.

  42. 42.

    Interview, lawyer, Moscow, November 2010.

  43. 43.

    Interview, three lawyers, Moscow, December 2010.

  44. 44.

    Interview, three lawyers, Moscow, December 2010.

  45. 45.

    Interview, lawyer, November 2010.

  46. 46.

    Interview, lawyer, Moscow, November 2010.

  47. 47.

    Telephone interview, lawyer, Nazran, Ingushetia, May 2010, similar statements were made by three other lawyers.

  48. 48.

    Interview, three lawyers, Moscow, December 2010.

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Acknowledgements

This study was supported through grants from the VSBfonds, Hendrik Muller Fonds, CIMO/Nuffic foundation, and mobility grants from the Academy of Finland. The author thanks Miia Halme-Tuomisaari, Markku Lonkila, Suvi Salmenniemi, members of the Helsinki Research Group for Political Sociology, and the anonymous reviewers for their insightful and supportive comments on earlier drafts of the mansucript.

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van der Vet, F. Seeking Life, Finding Justice: Russian NGO litigation and Chechen Disappearances before the European Court of Human Rights. Hum Rights Rev 13, 303–325 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12142-012-0226-2

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Keywords

  • Russia
  • Council of Europe
  • NGOs
  • Human rights
  • Caucasus
  • Civil society