Just before the holidays the European Court of Human Rights rendered two important decisions in cases against the Russian Federation. First, a Chamber declared admissible the second interstate application filed by Georgia against Russia (Georgia v. Russia No. 2, App. No. 38263/08, available here). The case arises out of the 2008 armed conflict between Georgia and Russia; in the words of the Court, ‘The applicant Government submitted that, in the course of indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks by Russian forces and/or by the separatist forces under their control, hundreds of civilians were injured, killed, detained or went missing, thousands of civilians had their property and homes destroyed and over 300,000 people were forced to leave Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In their submission, those consequences and the subsequent lack of any investigation engaged the Russian Federation’s responsibility under Articles 2, 3, 5, 8 and 13 of the Convention, Articles 1 and 2 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention and Article 2 of Protocol No. 4 to the Convention.’
The cases raises important questions regarding the extraterritorial application of the ECHR, attribution of conduct by the separatist entities in Georgia to the Russian Federation, and the interplay between the Convention and international humanitarian law. Rather than deal with these matters in its admissibility decision, the Court quite rightly decided to deal with them on the merits (see esp. paras. 63-68, 71-75 of the decision). Importantly, the Court noted the lack of any derogation by the two states in the context of the armed conflict. This is bound to be a big one – and it seems likely that the Chamber will relinquish its jurisdiction to the Grand Chamber of the Court. (Another big case on the extraterritorial application of the ECHR is coming up for hearing before the Grand Chamber at the end of this month – Catan and Others v. Moldova and Russia (nos. 43370/04, 8252/05 and 18454/06). Dealing with human rights violations by the separatist Transnistrian authorities in Moldova, this is a sequel to the Ilascu case decided by the Court a few years back.)
Secon, there was the unanimous Chamber judgment in the Dubrovka theatre case – Finogenov and others v. Russia, nos. 18299/03 and 27311/03, press release, judgment). The case concerned the siege of the Dubrovka theatre by Chechen separatists in October 2002, when over 40 heavily armed terrorists equiped with explosives held almost a thousand people hostage in the theatre. The siege was (in)famously ended when the Russian authorties used an opiate gas to knock the terrorists out before storming the place, with the gas causing the deaths of 125 hostages. The families of some of these hostages lodged the application with the Court, claiming a violation of Article 2 ECHR by Russia. The Court held that there had been no violation of the Convention regarding the use of force and gas against the terrorists. It did, however, find that the rescue operation had not been well planned or implemented.
The case is very fact-specific, but I think I can say with some certainty that this will be a new leading case in the Article 2 pantheon, up there with McCann. It is notable for several developments. For example, despite Russia’s completely unsatisfactory cooperation with the Court in establishing the factual record (e.g. the documents of the Russian team that led the operation were all destroyed; Russia failed to answer the Court’s specific factual questions; Russia never disclosed exactly which gas it used, and so forth), the Court was prepared to be extremely deferential and flexible on the factual issues. Indeed, the Court almost entered an ‘IHL-mode’, quite explicitly deciding not to second-guess the Russian autorities’ decision to use force generally in order to subdue the terrorists, and their specific decision to use the opiate gas. The Court found a violation only because the medical rescue operation that followed the storming was manifestly poorly planned, with the authorities for example not even informing the doctors beforehand of the use of the gas. Some choice paragraphs are reproduced below the fold. Most importantly, the fact that the Court quite explicitly based its deferential approach on the Chechen Isayeva case dealing with the indiscriminate use of force shows much promise in providing needed flexibility in other factually complex cases that transcend conditions of normalcy, as e.g. in Georgia v. Russia. The Court awarded more than a million euros in compensation, and it is likely that Russia will appeal to the Grand Chamber – we’ll see what happens.
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