In the past year, Russia has seen numerous violations of freedom of assembly, as well as politically motivated criminal investigations dogged by poor evidence and procedure. (c) Xinhua/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved. While Vladimir Putin won the recent presidential election, he made his country fail a much more important test: the test of human rights, freedoms, and space for civil society and independent voices. So why has Thorbjørn Jagland and the Council of Europe welcomed him as a winner?
President Vladimir Putin came to power just three years after Russia joined Europe’s human rights club in 1996, the Council of Europe. Russia’s record of cooperation with the body on human rights is one and the same with Putin’s record. It is not a good one, and it has become increasingly fraught in recent years. Yes he wins the elections, but he has failed the human rights test that should set the standards for Europe’s premier human rights body.
Yet, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe Thorbjørn Jagland rushed to congratulate President Putin’s on his re-election, in a letter sent on Monday 19 March. This came shortly after the OSCE election observation mission concluded that the presidential election took place in an “overly controlled legal and political environment marked by continued pressure on critical voices.”
Article 3 of the first protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights guarantees free elections in all member states, which must “ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature.” Elections are the grandstand event in which the freedoms of a country are tested with the world watching. In this case, Russia’s lack of freedoms was exposed for all to see.
The OSCE statement on the controlled environment is not just a good reflection of the time around elections, but also of what we have seen daily as the situation for civil society organisations, human rights defenders, journalists, activists and others.
Instead of abiding by his mission to defend the Convention and therefore highlighting the shortcomings during election day and the generally repressive climate, the Secretary General “hoped” for active engagement with Russia. He spoke of “our common duty to work together in order to consolidate and strengthen our common European legal and human rights space.”
The Council of Europe must hold Russia accountable and require the same respect for fundamental freedoms as it does from other countries
Since Vladimir Putin’s re-accession to the presidency in 2012 – and the fully devoted Duma elected in 2011 – 50 laws have been adopted “designed to strangle opposition voices and raise the level of fear and self-control in the society,” as reported by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). Amongst the worst legislation adopted in this period are the infamous “foreign agents” law and the “undesirable organiastions” law. The European Court of Human Rights is still to consider complaints of victims falling under these laws. In the meantime, Russia has not suffered any concrete repercussions for these laws at the Council of Europe beyond diplomatic and polite expression of concern.
In light of President Putin’s internal policies, we need a Council of Europe that stands firm on its values and upholds the human rights obligations enriched in the European Convention for Human Rights. What we see instead is a Secretary General “touring European capitals [since November 2017] warning of a serious risk that Moscow could withdraw… unless its demands are met.”
It is only the occupation of Crimea that triggered a stronger action by the Council of Europe. Action was taken by its Parliamentary Assembly, challenging the credentials of the members of the Russian parliament sent to participate in the work of the Assembly. It called upon Russia inter alia to “reverse the illegal annexation of Crimea” and to “withdraw all its troops, including covert forces, from Ukrainian territory.” Along with these strong words, however, the Assembly decided in January 2015 to ratify the credentials of the Russian parliamentarians – though it did suspend these members from being allowed as rapporteurs, being members of election observation missions, and being allowed to represent the Assembly.
Russia responded by withdrawing its delegation from the parliamentary body for a year. The speaker of the Duma even went as far as suggesting that Russia could leave the Council of Europe as a whole in the near future.
A year later, in January 2016, the Russian delegation did not even try to be present in Strasbourg. Instead, in a letter to the President of the Assembly, speakers of the Russian parliament dismissed the Assembly’s demands concerning Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, and set the lifting of all sanctions against the delegation as a pre-condition for its return to Strasbourg. In the meantime, a new Duma had been elected in September 2016 in what the OSCE election observation mission qualified as an “electoral environment negatively affected by restrictions to fundamental freedoms and political rights, firmly controlled media and a tightening grip on civil society.” This included “numerous procedural irregularities during the counting processes” and “significant problems with the secrecy of the vote.” Various violations were reported, including ballot box stuffing and carousel voting.
As a consequence, Russia has now said it will stop contributing financially to the Council of Europe. At the Council of Europe, just like at the United Nations with President Trump’s administration, we see that governments are willing to defund the structures with which they disagree. In other words, they institute a relativism in such mechanisms and threaten their ability to continue working independently and serve the purpose they were set up for: holding governments accountable to their own commitments.
Yes, we must fight for the European Convention to apply to as many citizens as possible in Europe. However, we must not shy away from saying that the cost of withdrawing from the Council of Europe is high for the Russian state, for its credibility at home and abroad. The Council of Europe is worth something. If states can be members at no cost – not even the cost of showing respect and cooperation to the organisation – it will soon be worth nothing.
The Council of Europe must hold Russia accountable and require the same respect for fundamental freedoms as it does from other countries. Europe’s human rights body cannot accept to compromise with Russia on human rights. Its own credibility is at stake, as is respect for human rights by many others in the 46 remaining member states, of which many are inspired by Russia’s dealings.