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What is the Council of Europe for?

This week, the Council of Europe restored Russia's voting rights - and in doing so, has taken another step closer to becoming defunct.

John Dalhuisen
27 June 2019
Willy Brandt speaking at the Council of Europe, 1957
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CC BY-SA 3.0 German Federal Archive / Wikipedia. Some rights reserved

A curious and undignified drama played out at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg this week, as parliamentarians from across the continent agreed to change the organisation’s rules in order to end a four year stand-off with Russia and pre-empt its threatened departure.

The story is so peculiar that it is best described by analogy. Imagine a schoolboy football match in which a notorious bully, and serial fouler, storms off after being whistled once too often. The bully, the largest and dirtiest player on the pitch, then stands on the side-lines insisting he will only come back and play if the rules are changed to get rid of penalties. Most of the other players agree. Some of the smaller, most kicked about players complain about this. But they are ignored. They are told the changes are good for the game of football and assured that the player will be less inclined to foul if he cannot be punished for doing so. The player returns and the game resumes.

This is effectively what happened this week, when, in an abject display of appeasement, the Council of Europe extracted the few teeth it still has and handed these, gift-wrapped, to Russia in order to keep it in the fold.

The full story starts back in 1996, when Russia was admitted to the Council of Europe. The 70-year old institution was established shortly after the Second World War, with the aim of achieving “a greater unity between its members for the purpose of safeguarding and realising the ideals and principles which are their common heritage”. The promotion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law is at its heart: its centrepiece is the European Convention on Human Rights and its Court.

Its founding members were drawn from western European countries sharing broadly the same values, but as the Iron Curtain came down it rapidly expanded eastwards, taking on new life and a new role as it sought to bring democratic values to an extended European family. Russia’s accession was not universally welcomed. Many warned that it was neither ready, nor particularly inclined, to respect its standards. They feared the dilution of the organisation’s standards and the undermining of its watchdog function.

The cost of keeping Russia in the fold has been the surrendering of all authority

These doubts were dismissed. The gamble at the time was that Russia was better in than out. It was a risk worth taking. The road might be bumpy, but so long as a democratic destination remained dimly in sight, it was worth trying to walk it together. But this logic has become increasingly strained. Today, the organisation appears to care less where the road is heading than that it be wide enough for everyone to fit on.

The immediate cause of the recent rupture was Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and subsequent meddling in Eastern Ukraine. Faced with this incontrovertible violation of the territorial integrity of a fellow member, the Council of Europe had to do something. Under the circumstances, its response was mild. While governments represented in the Committee of Ministers looked to other fora for progress in Ukraine, the Parliamentary Assembly adopted the mild (if rare) sanction of suspending the Russian delegation’s voting rights. It did so again in 2015, prompting the Russian delegation to withdraw from the Assembly altogether, complaining bitterly of double standards and Russophobia.

In 2017, Russia upped the ante: it stopped paying its financial contribution. In 2018 it started to dictate terms: it would only return to the Parliamentary Assembly, and pay its outstanding fees, if the Assembly changed its rules to ensure that these could never again be removed from them or any other delegation, ever. It threatened to leave the organisation altogether.

One might be forgiven for supposing that this was a step too far; that an organisation that was sure of its purpose and committed to its integrity would be willing to accept, even if it regretted, the departure of a serially offending member state if they were unable to stomach the basic terms of membership.

But no. Over the course of the past few years, the Secretary General of the organisation, the former Norwegian premier Thorbjørn Jagland, and leading member states, notably Germany and France, pushed hard for solutions that would satisfy Russia. Legal opinions were produced arguing that the Parliamentary Assembly had no power to remove voting rights (notably in the elections of the Secretary General and judges in the European Court of Human Rights). Countless declarations were made extolling the importance of preserving the Council of Europe as a truly pan-European family. In May this year, the Committee of Ministers declared diplomatically, but unambiguously that “they would welcome that delegations of all member states be able to take part in the next June part session of the Parliamentary Assembly.” The game was up. The Parliamentary Assembly, which had rejected a similar set of rule changes in October last year, ushered them through on Monday. Russia had won.

The victory for Russia is significant; the damage to the Council of Europe considerable. It stands today shorn of teeth and credibility at a time when its aims and values are more challenged than they ever have been and not just, by any means, in Russia.

The cost of keeping Russia in the fold has been the surrendering of all authority. What are the benefits? Some have argued, and some sincerely, that Russia’s membership serves as a check on the worst of its authoritarian tendencies and that the protection of European Court of Human Rights offers an avenue for justice for its citizens. This has been the argument of a number of Russian NGOs. The evidence for this claim is scant, however. Russia has paid out large sums in compensation but has executed less than 40% of the 2600 judgments against it since it signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights 20 years ago. Very few of these concern its more egregious violations. A further 13,000 cases against Russia are pending before the court, 22% of the total. In 2015, it passed a law empowering the Russian constitutional court to declare Strasbourg rulings incompatible with the Russian constitution.

The real question is whether the Council of Europe is, in its current guise, capable of raising the respect for human rights in Russia?

Would the human rights situation in Russia be any worse if it had not been a member? Maybe. Maybe not. But the real question is whether the Council of Europe is, in its current guise, capable of raising the respect for human rights in Russia? As Memorial, one of the most respected independent human rights organisations in Russia, has warned “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.” It will not just harm Russians, but citizens of all states where authoritarian rulers, in power, or in waiting, will feel emboldened.

Russia’s departure from the Council of Europe is not a desirable outcome. But the safeguarding of its standards is a more important goal. The Council of Europe is at a crossroad. Russia is not the only country to treat its rules with disdain.

Only a year ago an independent inquiry finally established what was long known and long ignored: that Azerbaijan had been buying votes and influence in the Parliamentary Assembly. The report prompted modest reforms to a number of procedures, but no consequences at all for Azerbaijan. If offending states are able to conclude that their offending does not matter, it is because other states have concluded the same. The ultimate consequence of this, however, is that the Council of Europe will cease to matter. It is perilously close to this fate. This would be a shame. And a huge mistake.

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