Europe’s main human rights body voted last week to readmit Russia after Moscow lost its voting rights following the occupation of Crimea in 2014. The controversial decision was met with dismay by Ukraine, whose delegates walked out in protest.
The Council of Europe was founded in 1949 to promote human rights, democracy and the rule of law and is entirely separate to the European Union.
The council’s founding members were western European nations, but after the fall of the Iron Curtain, it expanded eastwards to take in a number of former communist states. Russia was admitted in 1996.
The decision to restore Russia’s full voting rights is the first time that an international sanction for Moscow’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 and further destabilisation of eastern Ukraine, has been reversed.
Since being stripped of its voting rights in 2014, Russia boycotted the assembly in 2016 and since 2017 has refused to pay its annual dues. Moscow had threatened to leave the council completely if it could not participate in elections for the assembly’s next secretary-general.
But last week, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe voted by 118 votes to 62, to restore Russia’s voting rights. Ukraine, the United Kingdom and a number of eastern European countries wary of Russia voted against the decision.
The decision was supported by France and Germany who had argued that it was better to engage with Russia and keep channels of communication with Moscow open during a period of tension in East-West relations.
Ukraine Outraged by Decision
Ukraine was outraged at the decision and its delegation walked out of the assembly in protest after Russian MPs were allowed back in and recalled its ambassador to the council for consultations.
Volodymyr Groysman, the Ukrainian Prime Minister, tweeted that the decision showed “a display of utter contempt for international law”.
Ukrainian delegates to the council had argued that readmitting Russia would be viewed as a weakness in Moscow and would be essentially giving a nod that Russia can do what it likes in Ukraine.
But practical considerations may also have played their part. Since 2017 Russia has suspended its annual payments to the body. Moscow paid in USD$35.2m a year, which had left a considerable hole in the council’s budget, amounting to 7% of contributions.
The Kremlin took a more nuanced approach to the decision. “This is not a diplomatic victory of Moscow. This is a victory of common sense,” said Dmitry Peskov, President Putin’s press secretary.
A Victory for Ordinary Russians
But the most likely winners will be the Russian people. Human Rights advocates were concerned that if Russia left the council for good, then ordinary Russians could lose their right to appeal abuses from Russia’s police and legal system to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The ECHR acts as a deterrent to more flagrant abuses by Russian law enforcement bodies and orders Russia to pay millions of euros every year to its citizens in compensation.
“It’s very important for the whole law enforcement system. The judgments really can make a difference. It would be a huge loss for us and for Russians not to be able to use this system anymore,” Natalia Taubina, a veteran human rights activist and director of the Public Verdict Foundation, a Russian NGO that fights human rights abuses by Russian law enforcement bodies, said in April.
Since 1996, 2,500 judgements have been delivered to Russia by the ECHR and in 2017 alone the Russian state paid more than 14.5 million euros in compensation to its citizens who had won cases against it.