Caretaker Foreign Minister Timo Soini (Blue) has handed over the presidency of the Council of Europe to France at a ceremony in Helsinki today, marking the end of Finland’s six month leadership of the 47-nation organisation.
The Council of Europe was established 70 years ago to champion human rights, democracy and the rule of law across Europe. But in recent years it’s been beset with problems caused by one of its biggest members Russia, home to more than 144 million citizens.
Russia was suspended from the CoE’s Parliamentary Assembly in 2014 after invading Ukraine and illegally annexing Crimea. In 2017 the Russians stopped paying their membership fees, arguing that if they can’t vote, they wouldn’t pay.
Under CoE rules if Russia had gone two years without paying its membership fees then Russian parliamentarians would have been out completely.
That deadline was set to expire next month but on Friday the Council of Europe in Helsinki blinked in the face of Russian threats to pull out of the CoE altogether, and restored voting rights.
The problems with Russia however run deeper than just money.
“The Council of Europe was of course faced with a huge crisis when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea and the whole war in Ukraine” says Petra de Sutter, a Dutch MEP and Chair of the CoE’s Rules Committee who spoke to News Now Finland in Helsinki at the start of the Finnish presidency.
“People say if Russia is completely out of the Council of Europe there will not be access for citizens of Russia to the court, and that’s what it’s really all about, to give people the right to challenge human rights issues which we know are quite often violated in Russia” she says.
According to official figures, more than 20% of all cases brought to the European Court of Human Rights in 2018 came from Russian citizens.
At the end of this week’s Ministerial meeting, held at Finlandia Hall, leaders issued a statement saying that all member states should be able to take part in both the Parliamentary Assembly and the Committee of Ministers, but that “one of the fundamental obligations of member states is to pay their obligatory contributions”, a direct reference to Russia.
Only six nations voted against restoring Russia’s voting rights.
Does Russia even belong inside the Council of Europe?
Beyond the obvious elephant in the room about Crimea and the issue of sanctions against Russia – the Ukrainian foreign minister pulled out of the Helsinki conference at the last minute, anticipating that Russia’s voting rights would be restored – Russia presents a wider problem for the Council of Europe.
The organisation is seen as progressive, and embracing western values when it comes to human rights and democracy, while Russia is regularly at odds with those ideals.
“Ultimately the question remains how much do Council of Europe countries have in common on perception of norms and where things should be going? In order for the Council to be effective in the long run, probably there should be a minimum of common ground and common understanding” says Lauri Mälksoo, a Professor of International Law at the University of Tartu in Estonia who recently edited a book about Russia and the Court of Human Rights.
Professor Mälksoo says that while neither the CoE nor the Russians want to be the ones to walk away from the process, there’s a gradual drifting apart where the mainstream of European countries adopt CoE-agreed legislation around issues like domestic violence and sexism, while Russia chooses to opt out of enacting those types of laws.
“In this last decade in Russia, the traditional conservatives have criticised liberal secular European human rights as an alternative view of what they think human rights are or should become. The elite in Russia probably don’t come to abandon human rights as such, but they want to give it a different direction; a less progressive, a less open version of human rights than what is promoted in the Council of Europe” Professor Mälksoo tells News Now Finland.
The debate about Russia’s compatibility with mainstream modern European values, and its behaviour flouting international normals, isn’t just happening among academics like Mälksoo or Arkady Moshes from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs FIIA, who says that “the whole system of European institutions and diplomacy is based on the idea of process and progress, on the idea of more or less, of compromise”; it’s happening inside the CoE as well.
“It’s the eternal dilemma. If you have a bad pupil in the class do you throw him out or keep him in. Some people will see the good in that pupil and hope to influence this pupil so things will get better, and others will say it’s hopeless” offers MEP Petra de Sutter.
“In this case the [human rights] court is important for the Russian citizens, even if Russia doesn’t implement the rulings of the court […] it gives some pressure on the judiciary system knowing there is a court and people can go there” says de Sutter.
“Can you trust them? Can you really dialogue with them? It needs two to tango and I am a person who believes in dialogue as a principal.”