The Guest Blog

Guest blog post by Andrej Hunko, European policy spokesman of the Left Party parliamentary group in the German Bundestag and member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

In an article[i] also published in German in DIE ZEIT and on EurActiv.de, Susan Stewart of the Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), an organisation which advises the German government, called for Russia to be excluded from the Council of Europe, as there is allegedly no longer any justification for it to remain.

In doing so, she pushes two arguments that fail to convince: Russia’s relationship to the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and the human rights situation in Crimea. The discussion behind this leads to the question of whether we should opt to harden the bloc confrontation approach, or whether efforts should be undertaken to keep channels of communication and influence open with Russia in the interests of pan-European unity.

The European Convention on Human Rights applies in Russia

Stewart is clearly in favour of confrontation and intends to use the Council of Europe to this end. Her first argument implies that it can no longer be assumed that Russia accepts and implements the rulings of the ECHR. She refers here to a change in the law resulting from a ruling of the Russian Constitutional Court. However, the German Federal Constitutional Court issued a similar ruling stating that the Basic Law is above the European Convention on Human Rights and that the rulings of the ECHR are not absolutely binding. Criticism that the ECHR ruling on voting rights for prisoners is not implemented in Russia is indeed justified. However, it is not a convincing argument for exclusion when compared with the fact that the UK has not implemented these rulings since 2005. In contrast, it would be worth noting that the ruling of the Russian court explicitly explains that Russia remains under the jurisdiction of Strasbourg – without any opt-out in the enforcement of rulings – and maintains its own right to action. Likewise, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe also reported in November that Russia appeared to be willing to compromise on this issue.

Human rights situation in Crimea

The second argument is the “problematic human rights climate” in Crimea. Here Stewart claims that the Russian authorities have “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”. Stewart herself mentions the report by the CoE delegation to Crimea, which was the first international organisation to be able to observe the human rights situation following the integration into Russia.[ii] Yet despite outlining specific problems, this report provides no grounds for Stewart’s assessment. The right to life is mentioned once, but no violation whatsoever of this by Russian or local authorities is determined – and certainly no systematic violations. On the matter of the right to liberty and security, the report only notes that there are allegations of unjustified arrests and detentions by the local criminal justice system related to corruption problems. At the same time the report recalls that infringements of the European Convention on Human Rights had been determined by the ECHR prior to the annexation of Crimea. No violation of the right to freedom of expression was determined, but concerns have been expressed regarding a reduction in diversity. No evaluation is made, however, and it is pointed out that any restriction of freedom expression must comply with the requirements set out in Article 10(2), which include the necessary restrictions “for national security, territorial integrity”. In Ukraine there are equivalent legal restrictions and threats by the state and others against “extremist content” on the issue of Crimea. Yet Stewart ignores the context of the Ukraine-EU-Russia conflict and creates double standards against Russia.

Anti-Russian shift

In light of the Ukraine conflict and the various responses in Europe, Stewart thus appears to tread a long-established anti-Russian, US-friendly line. This is all the more remarkable given that in doing so she omits the relevant arguments of her own position of 2013, arguing in favour of Russia’s membership of the Council of Europe.[iii] The Council of Europe is to be viewed as the “hospital of democracy” in which the healing process cannot involve “excluding the sick and injured“, she wrote at the time. These arguments continue to be relevant, both with regard to the ECHR and the situation in Crimea. The thrust of the Council of Europe’s Crimea report is for the Council’s monitoring structures to achieve normal access, as hoped by the Crimean Tatars in particular. Excluding Russia would mean the opposite of this. And yet not only in terms of Crimea, but also in relations with Russia, Stewart is completely missing the ideas of 2013.

What is striking, however, is Stewart’s continual denial since 2013 of a line of conflict within the Council of Europe, between those for and against Russia. The behaviour of the Russian delegation is highlighted, although unfortunately many states and many of their representatives attempt to deflect criticism of their own governments. And yet it is not so much the human rights violations in Russia that contribute to the undermining of the values of the Council of Europe than the way the latter is obviously used against Russia, which then allows its own representatives to play down absolutely justified criticism. Not least the prevention of resuming the monitoring process for Hungary[iv] shows how unfairly the instruments of the Council are applied.

Preventing an escalation of the conflict

The debate regarding Russian membership should thus not only be restricted to the real institutional and human rights problems in and with Russia, as it is also a matter of institutional relations to Russia in Europe. It is an open secret that the Council of Europe is a thorn in the side of the USA as it is the only international institution in which Russia is a member and the USA is not. It is noticeable that the calls for exclusion are restricted to the Council of Europe, while the OSCE is not mentioned at all. The Russian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has received sanctions, while the delegation to the OSCE has not. And yet the same arguments apply in both cases.[v]

An escalation of the conflict between NATO/the EU and Russia and the East-West divide of Europe is not in the interests of the people of Europe. The Council of Europe can play a key role by supporting documentation and dialogue in a way that goes beyond intergovernmental relations and brings together parliamentary and civil society actors.

Excluding Russia would silence justified criticism from the Council of Europe and send a poor signal to the people of Russia. Calls for exclusion on their own are enough to strengthen the Russian hawks demanding that the country leaves. There are actors on both sides of the conflict who have vested interests in an escalation of the conflict between “the West” and Russia. We should confront them with a European solution to the conflict based on communication instead of mutual sanctions and demonization.

Andrej Hunko is the European policy spokesman of the Left Party parliamentary group in the German Bundestag and a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. The article was first published in German on the website of the Information Centre on Militarisation (IMI) underStandpunkte.

[i] Susan Stewart: Council of Europe Can Do without Russia, http://www.swp-berlin.org/en/publications/point-of-view/council-of-europe-can-do-without-russia.html, published on 11.05.2016. Also published in German: swp-berlin.org on 11.05.2016, euractiv.de on 12.05.2016, zeit.de on 18.05.2016.

[ii] The report, for which Stewart does not provide a link, can be found at https://rm.coe.int/CoERMPublicCommonSearchServices/DisplayDCTMContent?documentId=090000168064211f, (SG/Inf(2016)15rev), 11.04.2016.

[iii] Susan Stewart: Russland und der Europarat (Russia and the Council of Europe), SWP-Studien 2013/S 10, http://www.swp-berlin.org/de/publikationen/swp-studien-de/swp-studien-detail/article/russland_und_der_europarat.html, May 2013 (German only).

[iv] Of the German members of the Assembly, only the Left Party supported the initiative to resume monitoring: http://assembly.coe.int/nw/xml/XRef/Xref-XML2HTML-en.asp?fileid=12741&lang=en, 25.11.2011.

[v] Cf. Member of the Bundestag Jürgen Klimke (CDU) against OSCE sanctions against Russia,

https://www.bundestag.de/dokumente/textarchiv/2015/kw07_interview_klimke/360182, 11.02.2015, (German only).

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