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Is the Council of Europe giving up on human rights?

Human rights

Is the Council of Europe giving up on human rights?

Efforts to reinstate Russia to Council’s parliament risk undermining the rule of law

The Council of Europe headquarters in Strasbourg

Since 1949 the Council of Europe has been promoting human rights, democracy and the rule of law on the European continent. Originally comprising only western European countries, it later expanded to include virtually all the former members of the Soviet Union.

One of its central achievements is the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which offers redress to citizens who have been denied justice in their own countries.

Enlargement after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 was risky in view of the new members’ lack of democratic experience. Nevertheless, many hoped that membership would encourage them to progress along the road to democracy.

However, the experience with countries such as Azerbaijan and Russia has been far from a happy one.

Azerbaijan is today a hereditary dictatorship, while Russia is becoming an increasingly authoritarian state. Both persistently flout the fundamental principles of the organisation in almost every area of domestic policy. Russia in 2015 adopted a law giving its Constitutional Court the power to render judgments of the ECHR unenforceable in Russia.

Yet both countries devote much effort to presenting themselves as fully democratic and to retaining their membership of the Council of Europe.

Last December, the European Stability Initiative, a think-tank, alleged that, for years, Azerbaijan had been paying some members of the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly (Pace) in return for a softening of criticism. It led to the resignation of several parliamentarians, and Pace commissioned an independent external investigation to examine the accusations of “corruption and fostering of interests”.

Pedro Agramunt, Pace’s former president, had close links to Russian policymakers. His travel on a Russian jet to a Russian-organised meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad finally forced him to resign from the Pace leadership last October. The same month he received an honoris causa doctorate from a Kremlin-linked university.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its military aggression in eastern Ukraine led Pace to suspend Russian’s voting rights in 2014. In subsequent years, Russia refused to send delegates to the Assembly but, since mid-2016, it has shown increasing interest in readmission to Pace, which it hopes to achieve without losing face.

Last June, it said it would no longer pay its membership dues and was considering withdrawing completely from the Council. In parallel, it held discussions with parliamentarians who have argued in support of restoring its voting rights, such as Mr Agramunt, Michele Nicoletti and Council Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland.

We believe that, once it became clear that the 2014 suspension would not be reversed, there were efforts to disguise this goal under the cloak of an alleged need to “harmonise” the composition of the Assembly with the Committee of Ministers. Since Russia continues to take part in the Committee, this would imply the return of the Russian delegation to Pace with full voting rights.

The harmonisation “argument” lacks any substance. Since 2014, the Council has continued to function satisfactorily. Moreover, in numerous international organisations voting rights in the governing body are separate from those in the deliberative assembly, without this affecting their proper functioning (for example, the EU, the OSCE, Nato, the UN and the ILO). The fact that Russia cannot vote in Pace is the normal and intended consequence of its violations, including its aggression against Ukraine, a fellow Council member.

Another worrying position is that of the Council’s secretary-general. He is pressing for Russia’s return because, he argues, it would be wrong to remove the protection of the ECHR from 140m Russian citizens.

What Mr Jagland omits to say is that Russia itself has withdrawn this protection. In December 2015, it ruled that only the Russian Constitutional Court could decide which judgments of the ECHR may be applied in Russia — a gross violation of the treaty establishing the Court.

The situation is clear: for as long as Russia does not fundamentally change course in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Russian parliamentarians should not be allowed to vote in the Assembly. Russian troops are still present in both regions and international human rights organisations regularly report on Russia’s violations there. Moreover, Russia’s domestic policies violate the Council of Europe’s fundamental goals and principles in so many respects that this by itself should be enough to exclude it from the organisation.

With its 2014 resolution, the Assembly demonstrated to European citizens that it took seriously its mission to defend human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

It must stick to that decision. Otherwise it will lose all credibility as the champion of fundamental European values, raising the risk of a gradual erosion of the rule of law and of legal protections for ordinary citizens, and giving support to those who amass wealth and influence through illegal means.

Willem Aldershoff is an independent analyst of international relations and a former head of unit at the European Commission; Michel Waelbroeck is emeritus professor of European law at the Université Libre de Bruxelles.

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