Thursday

21st Nov 2019

Opinion

The Council of Europe's surrender to Russia

  • The Council of Europe's HQ in Strasbourg. 'From now on Russia can be expected to stifle any criticism of its record on human rights and the rule of law.' (Photo: Council of Europe)

Earlier this month, Russian air forces targeted hospitals in Syria, EU institutions presented evidence that Russian actors spread divisive material ahead of the European elections in May, and Dutch prosecutors indicted three Russians and one Ukrainian for complicity in murdering 298 people by downing flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014.

Despite all this, European governments have handed the Council of Europe (CoE) to Russia this week.

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In order to prevent Russia from leaving, the organisation has given up some of its limited sanctioning powers.

For Russia, the council's surrender to its demands is a huge foreign policy success.

For the council, it is a disaster.

From now on Russia can be expected to stifle any criticism of its record on human rights and the rule of law. It can be expected to shield its allies in the council from criticism, countries that torture, jail opponents and rig elections.

It can be expected to impose its will on issues such as who will run the Council of Europe (CoE).

Earlier this year, Russia already blocked the candidacy of former Lithuanian prime minister Andrius Kubilius for the post of CoE Secretary-General, which was filled on Wednesday with Croatian foreign minister Marija Pejcinovic Buric.

Five-year standoff

This is the sorry end of a five-year stand-off.

Russia became irritated in 2014 when the CoE's Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) suspended for one year the Russian delegation's rights to vote and to hold senior posts, over the annexation of Crimea.

Aleksey Pushkov, the head of the Russian delegation, called this "an awful violation of Russia's rights" and, bizarrely, "a triumph of double standards".

In January 2015, PACE again suspended these rights, this time for three months, in response to Russia's activities in eastern Ukraine and the shooting down of the MH17 flight. By the time the suspension was to be reviewed in April 2015, Pushkov had broken off all contacts.

Not only did Russia boycott PACE for the past four years, it also made demands and exerted pressure.

In 2016 it announced that it would return to PACE only if the assembly gave up its power to deny voting and representation rights to nay delegation, ever again. In 2017, it stopped paying its membership contribution of €33m (seven percent of the CoE budget).

In 2018, it declared that it would leave the organisation altogether if its demands were not met. In response, the CoE's Secretary-General Thorbjorn Jagland and some member countries such as Germany and France started looking for ways to placate Russia.

They pressed every button.

In October 2018, they presented a flawed legal analysis that confirmed Russia's claim that PACE's powers to suspend voting and representation rights – in place since 1985 and never contested before - contradicted the council's statute.

They blamed PACE for sanctioning the Russian delegation, with Jagland telling the assembly that "depriving the Russian delegation of the right to vote in this assembly has not led to the return of Crimea to Ukraine or improved the human rights situation in the Russian Federation. It has created a crisis within this organisation instead."

Finally, last month, a majority of the 47 member governments agreed to give in to the Russian blackmail and pressured PACE to do the same.

Last Monday, with 118 votes in favour, 62 against and 10 abstentions, PACE gave up its sanctioning powers and two days later accepted the Russian delegation back. Newly confirmed Russian PACE member Leonid Slutsky declared triumphantly that the Russian delegation would not tolerate "any more sanctions, no matter how insignificant."

Slutsky and three other members - Leonid Kalashnikov, Igor Lebedev and Svetlana Zhurova - are under EU travel bans and asset freezes for to their roles in incorporating Crimea into the Russian Federation. They have to ask France for special permission each time they travel to Strasbourg.

The supporters of placating Russia have one argument on their side.

If Russia left, its citizens would lose access to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

While the court's rulings have not prevented Russia from becoming increasingly repressive, they have provided some victims with moral satisfaction in the form of recognition that their rights have been violated.

Not all NGOs agree

Some Russian NGOs have argued that preserving access to the court is worth giving in to Russia's demands. Others do not think so.

Memorial, one of the most respected independent Russian human rights organisations, warned that "unilateral concessions in the complete absence of changes in Russia's position […] will inevitably have devastating consequences for the international mechanisms designed to support them. And therefore, in the long run, it will harm our country."

Memorial is right. There is no guarantee that Russia will continue, at least partly, to comply with the rulings of the Human Rights Court.

In 2015, it passed a law that empowers the Russian constitutional court to determine whether Strasbourg rulings are to be implemented or not – a blatant violation of the European Convention of Human Rights under which all Strasbourg rulings are binding.

So far Russia has used this law scarcely, but this may change now as it has realised how much power it holds.

The surrender to Russia dooms the council to irrelevance at a time when it has become fashionable to question human rights norms and independent judiciaries. European democracies have never needed a strong human rights institution more than now. This requires that they let members go that violate its basic principles.

What they have got now is a plaything of repressive states.

Author bio

Alexandra Stiglmayer is a senior analyst with the European Stability Initiative, an independent Berlin-based think-tank that follows developments at the Council of Europe.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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