Human Rights in the 21st Century

Human rights in the Russian Federation: an overview of trends.

Author: Elena A. Lukyanova, Law Professor. 1984-2014 – Professor of Moscow State University/ Till august 2020 – Professor of Department of Constitutional and Municipal Law at the Faculty of Law of National Research University Higher School of Economics (Moscow). Now – Professor and co-rector of Free Moscow University (Brīvā Universitāte – Latvija). Director of the Agency of Law Enforcement Effectiveness Monitoring (Russia)
Laureate of the Moscow Helsinki group prize for research in the field of human rights.

In order to assess the situation regarding human rights and freedoms in modern Russia, we first need to look into what has been happening in this area in the last three decades. A lack of such overview would leave a European reader utterly confused with the current state of affairs. He or she would get a false impression of reading about a territory populated by savages. Hence, this article intends to provide the reader with the needed framework.

Throughout the entire twentieth century, Russia essentially lacked modern understanding of human rights and freedoms. This applies to the scientific discourse, the state, and the society at large, notwithstanding multiple citations of rights and freedoms in Soviet constitutions. Having established, for instance, the principle of free labor, the Soviet government simultaneously introduced the universal labor duty, declaring: “He who does not work, neither shall he eat”. Similarly, while recognizing the equal rights of its citizens, without distinction in their racial or national identity, the state invoked “the interests of the working class” to justify the disfranchisement of entire groups for “using their rights to undermine the interests of the socialist revolution”. The rise of Soviet power also meant that Russian citizens were deprived of their property rights, their freedom of thought, freedom of movement and residence, and of the right to leave their country, to name just a few.

In 1993, for the first time in its centuries-long history, Russia adopted a Constitution with a chapter on human rights and freedoms fully reflecting the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR). The supreme value of human rights and freedoms became one of the Fundamentals of the Constitutional System (Article 2), and their recognition, observance and protection was declared as the major obligation of the State. The adoption of these provisions as part of the constitution paved the way for the ratification of the ECHR in 1998. This act meant that Russia fully accepted the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights in all matters concerning the interpretation and the application of the ECHR and its protocols.

It also entailed the introduction of additional means of protection from potential abuse of discretion, such as judicial appeals (under the condition of the observance of the principle of independence of the Judiciary) or appeals to international human rights bodies. Additionally, the right for a state compensation for damages caused by unlawful actions (inaction) of bodies of state authority and their officials was established. According to the Article 55 of the Constitution, in the Russian Federation no laws could be adopted cancelling or derogating human rights and freedoms. The articles 46-54 provided the legal framework for guaranteeing due process of law, the elements of which could not be limited or revoked under any circumstances, including the state of emergency. Russia also introduced a moratorium on the death penalty.

This happened thirty years ago. Is this a long or a short period of time? While it could be seen as just a brief moment in history, three decades is a lot for one human life. So, how has the situation regarding human rights and freedoms evolved since the ratification of the Convention? After all, it is well known that rules and laws remain just letters on paper as long as they are not actually turned into reality. It takes various stakeholders to form such a legal reality: the State, the judiciary, the expert community, the citizens, the media.

From today’s perspective, one can argue that the process that took Europe as a whole (and individual European countries), is now being played out in Russia at a much greater speed, yet with the same issues involved. The society and the expert community have been much faster in processing and assimilating the modern concept on human rights and freedom in its totality. The human rights doctrine had been fully integrated into many curricula. The Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation had contributed significantly to the incorporation of the international standards in the area of human rights into the national legislation. Yet, those advances have since proved to be insufficient. The awareness of the importance of human rights among Russian citizens is still very low[1].

Besides, the country still faces multiple problematic issues regarding the defence of human rights and freedoms. The data provided by the ECHR provide an evidence: in 2020, approximately one fourth of all applications currently considered by the Court are coming from Russian nationals[2]. Russia is notorious for being a leader in the number of the ECHR violations per year. Every year, the country pays up to 1.5 million Euros to the victims of such violations.

Among the most commonly violated rights are the right to liberty and security (Article 5 of the ECHR), the right to the fair trial (Article 6 of the ECHR), and the right to life (Article 2 of the ECHR). The Article 3 prohibiting torture is also among the most frequently violated. The second most commonly violated group includes articles that protect property (Article 1 of the Protocol No. 1 to the ECHR), prohibit discrimination (Article 14 of the ECHR), and guarantee freedom of thought, conscience, and religion (Article 9 of the ECHR). For example, the members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization have been persecuted since 2017[3]. The group was declared extremist and then banned. Many of its followers faced criminal charges and are currently in jail.

The growing tensions in Russian domestic politics have inspired a vivid discussion regarding protection of freedom of speech and assembly, freedom of opinion and information as well as the Criteria for Free and Fair Elections. Those issues of the Russian law enforcement practices are the most pressing. Yet, they have not yet been legally assessed by the ECHR due to the existing procedure of prolonged consideration of applications. Another major problem of the Russian legislation is the lack of norms for protection against domestic violence and discrimination. For many years, the human rights activists have been pushing for the amendments to the relevant law. Yet, their adoption has been repeatedly postponed on various pretexts, in spite of the hugely worrying statistics on domestic violence (that annually causes deaths of 14 000 women).


[1] For more information on this consult Levada Center research:


[3]More information can be found, for example, here:,-alexei-pichugin,-jehovah-s-witnesses