Putin’s Taking the Piss over Human Rights, but Let’s not Be Too Smug

It turns out that the authoritarian Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has signed a law allowing Russia (or rather, the Russian state!) to avoid following rulings from international human rights courts…


Making such rulings subject to the authority of the Constitutional Court of Russia.

In fairness, I’m sure the latter institution won’t be making any arbitrary decisions. I have no doubt the Russian judiciary is every bit as independent and impartial as it was under Brezhnev, or indeed some of the earlier leading lights of 20th century Russian constitutional democracy.

Yet, it might be worthwhile pausing to take stock of some of the wider issues, before ‘particularising’ this issue too much, and making it all about the stereotypical ‘(Semi-)Oriental despotism of that nasty big Russian bear who wants to kill us!’

OK, so Vladimir Putin is a human rights abuser. That’s true. But do foreign courts have any right to legislate over Russia?

Perhaps legally. You’d have to ask someone with proper legal training. I mean, I assume so. Otherwise, what the hell is all the kerfuffle about?

But how about morally? Well, some might say that morally, it’s at least questionable.


Well, for one thing, remember, what these falsely universal courts do to Russia, they could do to the USA, or anywhere, really. If you want these courts to be able to legislate on what the Russian state can do, you’d better make damn sure that if they come after your country, you won’t be raising any sleazy caveats!

Is that too harsh? Well, OK. Of course, if a country is signatory to any particular conventions (I say ‘if’) then fair enough, they should not try to benefit from the good parts while avoiding the inconveniences. I admit that if you want to become or remain a signatory to any human rights convention, legally binding or otherwise, then you can’t just pick and choose. You can’t just reap the benefits and ignore the downsides.  A bit of consistency is only decent, and decency is precisely what the opportunistic Kremlin is lacking. That’s a fair point.

But even taking that into account:

Does anyone really believe that international courts are free of nationalism and Realpolitik?

To whose benefits are these courts?

Whose interests do they serve, and whose interests do they oppose?

Clearly, they do not serve the interests of ‘All Humanity,’ because within humanity, there are conflicting interests. I do not trust ‘impartial’ and ‘universal’ institutions to accomplish their roles; not merely because of bias, but because of the inherent logical impossibility of a ‘view from nowhere’ and ‘justice from nowhere.’

I am tempted to say Slavoj Zizek once raised this point, in his book Organs Without Bodies. But maybe that’s a bit of a dealbreaker for some readers!

But in fairness, you don’t have to be a ‘far-leftist’ or ‘political radical’ to see he is right about some things. As Zizek himself has said, the problem of global institutions being not fully representative is not an unfortunate accident; it’s ‘structural,’ which in my reading, means it’s built into the DNA of any attempt to provide a global institutional framework.

So, the truth hurts, doesn’t it? Yes, Putin is acting cynically and opportunistically, rather than on principle. But let’s not forget that Putin, for all his Machiavellian malevolence and moral corruption, has hit upon an uncomfortable truth.

To wit:

There is no ‘justice for Humanity.’ Only justice for human beings.

And that’s messy. And complex.

So, let’s not be naive about this…


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