Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and Russia: Euro Rights Blog by Noelle Quenivet

On 10 April 2014 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe condemned in strong terms Russia’s violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. To mark its condemnation and disapproval, the Assembly passed Resolution 1990 (adopted by 145 votes to 21 with 22 abstentions) that suspends some of the rights of the Russian delegation:

– voting rights;

– rights to be represented in the Bureau of the Assembly, the Presidential Committee, the Standing Committee;

– rights to participate in election observation missions.

The resolution did not go as far as annulling the credentials of the Russian Federation but clearly signals the Council of Europe’s condemnation of Russia’s actions. The report on which the resolution is based condemns Russia’s actions in no less strong terms, reminding Russia that it ought to abide by its obligations as a member of the Council of Europe.

Indeed, international organisations are created on the basis of a shared, mutual understanding on the issues which fall within the scope of the competences of the organisation. Yet, experience tells us that unless enforcement mechanisms are in place some States will, despite the pacta sunt servanda principle, not always comply with the principles enshrined in the founding document of the international organisation. Core to the Council of Europe’s aims are the safeguarding of the rule of law and human rights and fundamental freedoms (Article 1 of the Statute of the Council of Europe). Consequently, Article 3 of the Statute specifies

Every member of the Council of Europe must accept the principles of the rule of law and of the enjoyment by all persons within its jurisdiction of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and collaborate sincerely and effectively in the realisation of the aim of the Council as specified in [Article 1].

Should a State not comply with the terms of Article 3, Article 8 provides that such State can

be suspended from its rights of representation and requested by the Committee of Ministers to withdraw under Article 7. If such member does not comply with this request, the Committee may decide that it has ceased to be a member of the Council as from such date as the Committee may determine.

Such a power is however vested in the Council. However, in pursuance of Rule 9 of the 1999 Rules of Procedure of the Assembly the Assembly can challenge ratified credentials of any delegation on substantive grounds, including violations of Article 3 of the Statute. 

On 21 March 74 members (slightly less than a quarter) of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe tabled a motion for a resolution to remove the credentials of the Russian Delegation. The motion alleged that the Russian Federation had infringed the fundamental principles of the Council of Europe as enshrined in Article 3 by violating the ‘territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine’ and by its upper House of the Russian Parliament to ‘authorise[] such action in advance’. A second motion introduced by 53 members on 24 March 2014 called for the suspension of the voting rights of the Russian delegation. Whilst it referred to the same events as the other motion it also noted the ‘explicit threats of military actions in the rest of Ukraine’s territory’ and listed a number of legal instruments that Russia had breached, including Opinion No 193 (1996) which lists further commitments adopted by Russia upon accession. 

The resolution adopted on 10 April 2014 enumerates a range of breaches of international, stressing that such actions were

in clear contradiction with the Statute of the Council of Europe, in particular its Preamble, and the obligations resulting from Article 3, as well as the commitments undertaken by the Russian Federation upon accession and contained in Assembly Opinion 193 (1996). (para 4).

The report had noted that such

explicit threats of military action, using false arguments and making groundless accusations aimed at destabilising the country and violating its sovereignty and territorial integrity are incompatible with the principles and values governing this Organisation, which stands for human rights, democracy and the rule of law. (para 60)

Prior to the vote the Russian press had reported that Sergey Naryshkin, Speaker of the State Duma of the Russian Federation, insisted that the motions to suspend/reconsider the voting rights of the Russian Delegation were a provocation. His comment

I assume that this step is an attempt by the US to exclude European countries from dialogue with Russia.

further revealed that he misunderstood the nature of the procedure. Similar comments were proffered by the head of the delegation, Alexey Pushkov. The motions are not a provocation but initiatives to start an enforcement mechanism set out in the Statute of the Council of Europe. The reaction of the Russian delegation as reported in the press confirms that Russia sees this resolution as an unfriendly act, for Alexey Pushkov said Russia was considering terminating its membership of the Assembly. The suspension of voting rights is the first step before a member State can be suspended or withdrawn from the Council of Europe. The resolution in fact warns Russia that should Russia not deescalate the situation and reverse the annexation of Crimea the Assembly will consider the possibility of withdrawing Russia’s credentials (para 16). To this effect the Assembly invites the Monitoring Committee to consider establishing a sub-committee investigation the situation (para 17).

It is not the first time that the Russian delegation’s credentials have come under threat. On 6 April 2000 in light of Russia’s military activities leading to massive human rights violations in Chechnya the Parliamentary Assembly suspended Russia’s voting rights and, as a result, almost all members of the Russian delegation walked out. In the same resolution the Parliamentary Assembly recommended the Council to suspend its membership. Its voting rights were restored on 25 January 2001. Russia is in fact the only State whose voting rights were ever suspended in the history of the Council of Europe. Greece voluntarily withdrew from the Council of Europe in 1969 after the Council contemplated using its power to expel it and Turkey withdrew its delegation in 1981 and 1995 before the Assembly had a chance to vote on its credentials. Armenia and Ukraine were also very close to lose their voting rights. And in October 2008 whilst an armed conflict was raging between Georgia and Russia a resolution challenging the credential of the Russian delegation failed. It is noteworthy that Resolution 1990 specifically refers to the fact that Russia has failed to implement previous resolutions on the situation in South Ossetia and Abkhazia (para 10).

The suspension of voting rights in the Parliamentary Assembly is largely an ineffective tool as the previous suspension of Russia demonstrates. After the delegation was suspended in 2000 Russia denounced the Council of Europe’s approach and refused to collaborate with further inquiries on the situation in Chechnya. The deadlock was such that the rapporteur of the Report on the Credentials of the Delegation of the Russian Federation (23 January 2001) admitted:

we must not give up our critical evaluation of the situation in the Chechen Republic, but I believe that the State Duma has increasingly become a partner in our efforts for change. (para 13)

In fact the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights though

not satisfied with the progress made in the implementation of the Resolutions and Recommendations of the Parliamentary Assembly of last year by the Russian authorities … believe[d] that the Russian parliamentary delegation deserve[d] to be given another chance to prove that it [was] willing – and able – to influence the situation in the Chechen Republic for the better. (Opinion of Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights, Credentials of the Delegation of the Russian Federation, 25 January 2001, para 3)

Similar language was used in Resolution 1631 which failed to adopt a motion calling for the suspension of Russia’s voting rights in 2008. Although the Assembly recognised that the conflict between Russia and Georgia was a serious violation of the Statute of the Council of Europe it also stressed the need for a constructive dialogue and trust-building measures on both sides.

Resolution 1990 is undoubtedly in line with previous resolutions and discussions in the Parliamentary Assembly. Yet, bearing in mind the reaction of the Russian delegation after Resolution 1990 was passed it is unlikely that Russia will be collaborating with the Parliamentary Assembly even though the resolution does stress the importance of maintaining a dialogue (para 14). But again past experience shows that after Russia’s last outburst against the Council of Europe (regarding the situation in Chechnya) some members of its delegation tried to work with the Council of Europe and were rather helpful (Opinion of Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights, Credentials of the Delegation of the Russian Federation, 25 January 2001, paras 7-8). It can only be hoped that some members of the delegation are prepared to engage in a meaningful dialogue and the tactic of the Assembly will work out.

No doubt the Assembly has always been torn between its ‘duty to defend the organisation’s principles and standards’, which means adopting appropriate measures ‘when they are violated in a serious manner’ and the need to ‘preserve its links with the Russian parliamentary delegation, and engage its members in a constructive dialogue.’ (Opinion of Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights, Credentials of the Delegation of the Russian Federation, 26 January 2000, para 5). Its policy is probably best summarised in the words of Andreas Gross

…it is my firm belief that change can only be achieved on the basis of dialogue and dialogue cannot take place with the Russian delegation if we expel them from our midst. On the contrary: we can only try to convince those who do not share our convictions and ideas, as we have no means to impose them on anyone. But in order to convince someone he or she has to be a member of our Organisation, one cannot establish a relation of mutual trust and understanding – factors which support efforts to convince – after having expelled a delegation from the Assembly and generated distance and mistrust. (Report, Reconsideration on Substantive Grounds of Previously Ratified Credentials of the Russian Delegation (Rule 9 of the Rules of Procedure of the Assembly, 29 September 2009, para 16).