Yesterday the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Europe’s most important human rights institution adopted the De Sutter Report, a text that will allow Russia’s delegation to continue attending the sessions of the assembly and to participate in the election of the organization’s next secretary general. It will also unlock, for the Council of Europe’s budget, several years’ worth of financial contributions that Russia has withheld. The decision was supported not only by the majority of PACE members, but also the organization’s outgoing secretary general as well as the French and the German government and several Russian human rights defenders. It is a terrible decision, which will leave Russian human rights defenders worse off and will inflict serious, potentially irreparable harm on the Council of Europe. Here’s why.
When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the Assembly (PACE) suspended the rights of the Russian delegation, meaning that Russian deputies could not participate in PACE meetings and could not participate in votes, including on PACE reports, judges of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) and other officials, while its obligations remained the same. Russia’s troops did not leave Crimea, and while the sanctions effectively lapsed in 2015, the Russian delegation never returned to PACE. Instead, in 2016 the Russian government mounted a counterattack by acting as the injured party: it started withholding financial contributions to the budget of the Council of Europe, to which it is a major donor, and demanded not only for the sanctions to be unconditionally lifted but for PACE to change its own rules to make it impossible to sanction any delegation again in such a way. The Council of Europe did not have to bend to this blackmail: it could simply have expelled Russia after two years of non-compliance with its financial obligations. Instead, it chose to shoot itself in the foot.
It took three years of financial blackmail, rhetorical intimidation and possibly a fair amount of corruption, but the Russian government succeeded in arm-twisting Europe’s most prominent human rights institution to change its own rules the way it wanted them. It wouldn’t have been possible without homegrown corruption in several European countries, blatant complacency in Paris and in Berlin and the baffling short-sightedness of many Russian human rights defenders who somehow convinced themselves that it was better to let the Russian government emasculate the Council of Europe and establish a precedent of successful blackmail than lose the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights over Russia, which has been entirely subject to the government’s whims since 2015 when the Russian parliament adopted a law allowing the country’s Constitutional Court to disregard ECtHR judgements, “if they contradict Russian law”.
Perhaps they also didn’t consider that Russia had accumulated a larger backlog of unimplemented ECtHR judgements on serious human rights violations than any other member country of the CoE. Perhaps they didn’t understand that a CoE that bends to such blackmail once will bend to it again. The Russian government – and its allies from Hungary to Italy, from Azerbaijan to Germany – will now try again to bend the rules and to weaken the institution – not just PACE but also, for instance the ECtHR or the Venice Commission – further. Why wouldn’t they? It will take a very long time, if it is possible at all, until the Council of Europe can again be the guardian of human rights in Europe that it was once designed to be.
Adding insult to injury, it has been reported that Leonid Slutsky, a Russian parliamentary deputy of the far-right Liberal Democratic Party who faces multiple accusations of sexual misconduct and who, as Russia’s point-man in the PACE, was instrumental in forging ties between the Russian government and the European far-right, may now be elected vice-chair of the Assembly. Slutsky who after 2014 took a step back from international politics, will now have the opportunity to finish his job. In 2017 a series of shocking scandals concerning a Russian-organized trip to Syria and dirty money from the Azerbaijani government that showcased endemic corruption in the Assembly left PACE and the Council of Europe bruised, but also gave them a chance to purge and cleanse themselves.
This chance was squandered yesterday. And the Russian government scored a major foreign policy victory over a hapless, disoriented and corrupt institution and the EU’s Franco-German “tandem”. It will almost certainly use it to crack down on human rights defenders more confidently.