oDR: Opinion

The Council of Europe must react to violations by members – starting with Russia

The organisation’s ability to uphold its values and effectively react to major violations has been brought into question

Yuri Dzhibladze
24 June 2021, 12.00am
The Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly is in session this week
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Image: Council of Europe

In recent years, several crises have shaken the Council of Europe – the continent’s leading human rights organisation – and undermined its credibility.

Whether Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 or the massive crackdown on democratic institutions and fundamental freedoms in Turkey, these crises have involved defiant responses by member states to criticism by the Council (CoE). These have included withholding financial contributions and threatening to leave the organisation, as well as denying abuses and refusing to stop them. In turn, the Council has failed to respond effectively and timely to several instances of major violations of obligations by member states.

This week, the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) is holding its summer session. The ability of the CoE to effectively address serious and persistent violations of obligations by its member states is under scrutiny by civil society actors once again – and the Council’s problems have been exemplified by the way it dealt with the recent crisis in its relations with Russia.

After difficult deliberations over Russia’s threats to depart from the Council in 2019-20, PACE abolished most of the restrictive measures it could adopt in respect of national delegations. This solution caused a great deal of controversy, as Russia was able to return to the Assembly despite failing to implement almost all the provisions of PACE’s resolutions regarding its violations of international law in respect of Ukraine and its citizens. The credibility of the organisation suffered a severe blow.

To address this problem, in 2020 the Council introduced a new procedure for a coordinated response by the main CoE bodies to situations “where a member state violates its statutory obligations or does not respect the standards, fundamental principles and values upheld by the Council of Europe”. This includes a “high-level dialogue” with an offending member state with a view to eliminating the violations, and a possibility of its suspension or expulsion in case this dialogue does not lead to substantive change.

The ultimate goal should be not to expel Russia from the Council of Europe, but to use the new procedure to attain tangible progress in implementing the country’s obligations

The design of this new procedure could be improved, such as ensuring transparency in its triggering and application, wider use of the expertise of CoE monitoring and advisory bodies and seeking input from civil society. This would make the decisions more solid, unbiased and less prone to political pressure. Besides, more clarity is needed regarding what should be considered a “serious violation” sufficient for triggering the procedure. This threshold should not be exceptionally high, as otherwise the procedure could remain merely a theoretical question. Most importantly, the Committee of Ministers and the PACE should treat the procedure as a working tool and start using it. Otherwise, credibility of the CoE will be undermined further.

Russia appears to be the most likely first candidate for applying the new procedure, although Turkey and Azerbaijan are also strong contenders. Compromise decisions, which allowed the continuation of Russia’s CoE membership, were aimed at intensifying dialogue with the authorities and using the organisation’s tools more actively to achieve tangible progress in the implementation of the country’s obligations.

Unfortunately, over the past two years, we have seen the opposite result. The Russian authorities have demonstrated no willingness to revert their course of actions regarding violations of rights of imprisoned Ukrainians and continue harsh persecution of Crimean Tatars on false terrorism charges in occupied Crimea. Major changes in the Russian Constitution adopted in 2020 further alienated the country from the principles of a democratic and rule-of-law based state. Over the past few months, a series of new repressive laws have been adopted, further restricting fundamental freedoms. Crackdown against government critics has become systemic and systematic, shifting from targeting select segments of the Russian society to mass repression.

Findings by CoE bodies on Russia’s serious violations could serve as a basis for triggering the new procedure. These include the upcoming report by the PACE Monitoring Committee – the first in many years – the Venice Commission’s opinion on Russia’s 2020 constitutional amendments, Committee of Ministers’ decisions on Russia’s (non-)implementation of landmark European Court judgements , and conclusions by the Commissioner for Human Rights.

The ultimate goal should be not to expel Russia from the Council of Europe, but to use the new procedure to attain tangible progress in implementing the country’s obligations. However, if the Russian government refuses to cooperate, there may be no other way left but to decide if continuing to retain a state that persistently violates its obligations would not render the Council’s very existence meaningless.

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