In light of human rights violations in Crimea and a new law allowing Russia to ignore rulings of the European Court of Human Rights, there is no justification for the country to remain in the Council of Europe, writes Susan Stewart.
Susan Stewart is a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). Her research interests include Russian foreign and domestic policy. SWP advises the German government and Bundestag on all questions of foreign and security policy. The text also appears on the SWP website under “Point of View”. A German Version of this »Point of View« has been translated into English by Meredith Dale.
Even before the Ukraine crisis, Russia was a difficult member of the Council of Europe. Its representatives instrumentalised the Parliamentary Assembly as a stage, both in Strasbourg and in the Russian media. Instead of working to improve democracy and human rights in Russia, they fought to blunt criticism of it in Assembly documents. They did not hesitate to forge coalitions with countries like Azerbaijan and groups like the British Conservatives, with whom they worked to undermine the Council of Europe’s principles.
New law allows Russia to ignore international courts
Until recently, Russia’s willingness to obey the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) – like all other members of the Council of Europe – represented a certain counterbalance to the problematic behaviour of the Russian delegation in the Parliamentary Assembly. Even if these rulings did not lead to systematic reform of Russian legislation, Russia was consistently willing to pay the compensation awarded by the ECHR. This gave Russian citizens the possibility to take legal action against decisions of Russian courts on the basis of the European Convention on Human Rights. Most of the cases the Court has agreed to hear have been won by the complainant.
Russia’s acceptance of the ECHR has been an important argument for keeping it in the Council of Europe. But in December 2015 a new law was adopted permitting the Russian Constitutional Court to ignore rulings of the ECHR and other international courts if they contradict the constitution of the Russian Federation. With control of Russia’s court system largely in the hands of the executive, it is to be expected that future decisions on whether to place the Constitution above international rulings will be made at the political level. The new law was first used in April, when the Constitutional Court granted the Justice Ministry’s application for an ECHR ruling on voting rights for prisoners to be set aside because it would have required a constitutional amendment. In a departure from previous practice, Russia can no longer be expected to accept and implement the ECHR’s rulings. Thus Russia is violating a fundamental obligation to which all members of the Council of Europe have agreed.
Problematic human rights climate in Crimea
A second alarming development is the Kremlin’s handling of illegally-annexed Crimea. Here Russia has clearly demonstrated its unwillingness to observe fundamental human rights standards. Since March 2014 Russia has exercised de facto control over the political and economic life of the peninsula. Journalists and Crimean Tatar activists criticising the annexation or conditions under Russian rule have repeatedly been threatened and detained. A number of people have disappeared, while others have fled elsewhere in Ukraine to escape persecution. Those who refuse to accept Russian citizenship face difficulties accessing employment and social services in Crimea. At the end of April, the Russian Justice Ministry and the Crimean Supreme Court banned the elected representation of the Crimean Tatars, the Mejlis, as an extremist organization. Its chairman, Refat Chubarov, has been denied entry to Crimea since July 2014. The members of numerous local mejlises in Crimea now risk being labeled as extremists and detained.
At the end of January the Council of Europe was able to send a delegation to Crimea. Its report, published in April, warns explicitly that a ban on the Mejlis would amount to systematic repression of the Crimean Tatars. The Russian authorities have plainly ignored this counsel, just as they have paid scant heed to previous well-founded recommendations. For years now, the Council of Europe has only been able to bring about sporadic improvements in the human rights situation in Russia, even though Russia’s membership obligations would clearly have demanded substantial progress. Russia’s handling of the situation in Crimea demonstrates that the leadership has made a conscious decision to ignore essential human rights such as the right to liberty and security, the right to a fair trial, and the right to freedom of expression.
Russia’s destructive stance in the Parliamentary Assembly is thus now flanked by a rejection of the authority of the ECHR and a highly problematic human rights situation in Crimea. Given this combination, it is no longer possible to justify continuing Russian membership in the Council of Europe. Excluding Russia would undeniably involve sacrifices. The Council of Europe would lose a few – already largely ineffectual – levers of influence, and Russian citizens would no longer be able to take their complaints to the ECHR. The Council of Europe would also experience a financial loss and the symbolic injury of no longer being able to present itself as a pan-European institution. But those forfeits are small against the advantages of exclusion, even in a situation of extremely troubled relations with Russia: greater consensus over shared principles in the Parliamentary Assembly, zero tolerance for undermining the court, improved credibility of the institution as a whole. The Committee of Ministers should therefore initiate the exclusion process and send a message that the rest of Europe is willing to defend the principles of which Russia is attempting to make a mockery.