Russia’s return to Council of Europe: compliance in a rules based order

On 11th of December, a day after the UN Human Rights Day, the Free Russia Foundation organized a mini symposium in The Hague with various panels on the return of Russia into the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe focusing on “the balance between the rights and obligations” (of being part of the Council of Europe).

Russia was banned from voting since the annexation of Ukrainian territory in 2014 (Crimea) and other actions related to it. Under pressure the sanctions were withdrawn in June 2019 without Russia backtracking on any of the violations of international norms it was sanctions for, causing much debate before and after. Here is my contribution to the panel discussion: 

Let me begin with a quote, of a statement made 71 years ago, here in The Hague:

“… in no circumstances shall a State be entitled to be called a democracy unless it does, in fact as well as in law, guarantee to its citizens liberty of thought, assembly and expression, as well as the right to form a political opposition.”

This is one of the declarations in the closing resolution of the Congress of Europe in The Hague in 1948 that laid the foundations of a common Europe and the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The very core of the purpose of the Council of Europe. Just as back then as today, it raises expectations.

Congress of Europe, The Hague, 8 May 1948 © Nationaal Archief
Congress of Europe, The Hague, 8 May 1948 © Nationaal Archief


First of all, what do we expect from the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights, and its Conventions? Are they just tools to facilitate “communication and dialogue”? Just another reason to meet and talk?

Or do they offer frameworks for human rights principles and guidelines that every signatory should comply with at the very service and protection of their citizens?

What do we expect from the signatories and their level of compliance? We expect them to show tangible effort to fix what is broken when shortcomings or violations have been identified, right?

What do we expect the Council to do with a continued refusal to address these? And how should the values stipulated in the treaties be upheld without hollowing them out by turning a blind eye to treaty violators?

We expect each other to respect the principles, rules and guidelines, and keep each other in check. Enter responsibility of governments and civil society, to demand follow up on resolutions and court rulings. Does impunity fit in here? Not quite.


Russia threatened to leave the clubhouse. But let’s turn the table. It actually wants to stay inside: it just intimidated the rest of the club to be lifted off the hook. It felt desired, and thus demanded impunity. By dictating conditions of its membership, and successfully at that.

Which brings us to Russia’s contribution to the club as its largest member. Its track record leaves much to be desired and its lack of commitment casts doubt on arguments to have Russia in the club.

Because why would it want to be a member if it intentionally disregards it, and why would the rest want Russia being part of it?

Many argue that with the Russians in the clubhouse they would play by the clubhouse rules. That if they stay in, it will  protect Russian citizens through the ECHR while maintaining channels of dialogue. If Russia showed true commitment, the will and results of sincere improvement, one could accept a slow pace.

The trick of the Kremlin time after time however is to sell the illusion that this time it will really abide to the rules if the community let it get away one more time. The reality is that it never stops. It repeats itself over and over again.

Whether it is invading and occupying countries in its near abroad, interfering in British, American, Georgian or Dutch election campaigns, not cooperating in the accountability to the downing of a civilian airliner, or targeted assassinations in European states. Or human rights abuses at home against opposition or dissidents.

Despite resolutions, countless dialogue efforts, and punitive measures there is no sign of improving its behaviour, of backtracking on its wrongdoings when it is called upon. Despite club membership, Russia is in reverse gear.

<<Flush>> goes the argument that Russia will play by the rules once it is part of the club.

It goes to show that an inclusive, cooperative and civilized approach with Russia doesn’t work.

Values creep

Yes, Russian citizens can go to the ECHR, but as long as Russian authorities do not implement its rulings, or overturns them, how are Russian citizens protected by the European Convention on Human Rights? They are still submitted to the Kremlin’s whims.

By now we should have come to the conclusion that it is an illusion to think the current Russian political establishment, the Kremlin first and foremost, will ever play by these rules.

The Kremlin does not respect its clubhouse members nor the conditions and obligations of its membership. It disrespects its own citizens as well whenever it suits. Which means the Council of Europe will suffer from values creep if it refuses to confront and face up to Russia’s chronic attitude in it.

Moreover, the Kremlin proved it can simply overturn sanctions by threatening to leave the club, rendering the punitive measure useless.

Because next time…. After all, if it worked one time, why wouldn’t it next time?

Unless… the collective agrees it has been enough, truly protecting what it values: the clubhouse, and what is protected by its roof. That it should not allow one bully to break down the club. By submitting to the Kremlin’s blackmail, the clubhouse is on fire, from the inside. Can we prevent it from burning down to the ground?

Yes, we can. It’s not too late. But we have to act.

We need to live up to the expectations we have set. Live up to the criteria, values and norms. Holding each member accountable to those. Demanding to fix violations, demanding tangible progress, and certainly not succumbing to blackmail over membership.

We cannot tolerate the bully declaring itself the victim of its own victim and crime. We cannot allow ourselves to submit to this cynicism and moral nihilism, letting impunity become the norm.

To conclude, civil society and European governments have to press Russia more thoroughly into complying with the conventions it voluntarily signed up for.

If it takes punitive measures, such as disciplinary sanctions, then so be it. And they should not be lifted without steps from the perpetrator on the sanctioned issue. Compliance is not negotiable. It would degrade the rules based order and undermine its very foundations.

If Russia wishes to remain a member it has to accept the house rules as agreed by the club and thus its consequences. Ultimately, we should not be afraid to let a member go who is fundamentally refusing to cooperate.

The European consensus reached earlier this week on an EU Magnitsky law shows that a long term commitment from civil society, politicians and governments alike pushing for measures against human rights violators and against impunity ultimately pays off. There is no escape. And that is the message that all involved actors should continue to convey.

There is no escape from justice.

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