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Russia’s Continuation in the Council of Europe: Challenges and Chances for Human Rights

23 December 2019

Russia’s continued membership of the Council of Europe opens up possibilities for better protection of human rights but there is the risk the Council will take a too complacent approach. To avoid this risk, changes must be made in how the Council, and in particular its Committee of Ministers, operates. This was the main argument of NHC Senior Policy Advisor Harry Hummel at the event “Russia’s Return to the Council Of Europe: What Balance Between Rights And Obligations?,” held by the Free Russia Foundation on 11 December 2019 in The Hague.

The Council of Europe and Russia

In June 2019, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) decided to restore Russia’s voting rights, after a suspension that had been in force since 2014, in response to the annexation of Crimea and Russian operations in East Ukraine. In response to the suspension, from 2017 Russia stopped payments to the Council (membership fees paid by every state). By the end of 2018, Russia threatened to leave the international organisation all together, arguing that by not being able to vote in PACE, it could not take part in elections of key Council officials such as judges in the European Court for Human Rights and the Secretary General.

Council of Europe & European Parliament - Strasbourg photo c/o: JMA58 Flickr

A major issue amongst CoE observers is the lack of tangible steps by Russia in return for restoration of its voting rights in the PACE. Jelger Groeneveld, Secretary of the Department of International Cooperation for the D66 Party in the Netherlands, described Russia’s actions as those of a bully, making the point that one should never submit to a bully. Harry Hummel however said that while Russian media has been portraying the return to the PACE as a political victory for Russia, at the same time it also means a reaffirmation that Russia wants to be part of the system and adhere to the rights and values espoused by the Council of Europe. Russian membership means all those suffering human rights abuse at the hands of Russian authorities will continue to have access to the European Court of Human Rights for redress.

Access to the European Court of Human Rights continues to be an important avenue to justice for Russians. In the face of increasing political repression in Russia, this becomes all the more important. At the event, Sergei Davidis, Head of the Political Prisoner Support Programme of Memorial Human Rights Centre, gave an overview of cases of political imprisonment, currently 317 political prisoners. Vadim Prokhorov, lawyer of the assassinated opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, described the challenges he faces— in terms of access to legal tools and information— when representing Nemtsov and his family.

Council of Europe should do more for human rights compliance

Hummel observed that the Council is not fully utilising its mechanisms and tools to ensure human rights enforcement. In particular he noted a lack of action by the Committee of Ministers in response to the Russian actions of 2014. He also said the Committee’s role in overseeing the implementation of judgments of the Court needs a tougher approach. Many judgments are not fully implemented (an issue not just with respect to Russia, but affecting a wider number of counties). For example, infringement procedures under Article 46 (4) of the European Convention on Human Rights should be used in cases of persistent non-implementation of judgements if the Court. A new procedure, which either the PACE or the Committee of Ministers can trigger, to address serious violations of statutory obligations by Council of Europe member states is currently being negotiated, he said. This should not become a dead letter.

…as long as Russia is in the Council of Europe it is bound by the European Convention of Human Rights, and its citizens continue to enjoy the protection of the European Court of Human Rights, this opportunity should not be wasted”

The lack of action of states in the Committee of Ministers should become a subject for civil society action, Hummel argued. The instructions of the states’ representatives in the Committee ultimately come from their capitals, and civil society should advocate with governments and parliaments for a more active role in the Committee. The level of the financial contributions to the Council from a wider group of countries could be increased, he also said, this would limit the possibility to “blackmail” the Council by non-payment of contributions and could pay for the increase of human rights monitoring.

President of the Free Russia Foundation, Natalia Arno noted the symbolic nature of the event taking place one day after Human Rights Day, in The Hague, internationally known as the city of peace and justice. Russia’s return has caused controversy (even within civil society circles) and backlash, explained Arno. But as long as Russia is in the Council of Europe it is bound by the European Convention of Human Rights, and its citizens continue to enjoy the protection of the European Court of Human Rights. This opportunity should not be wasted, significant changes in how the Council operates should continue to be pursued by the Council itself, its member states, and civil society throughout Europe.