Russia’s withdrawal from the Council of Europe is a loss of hope for human rights

The last glimmer of hope that Russia would be included in Europe died out last week. Russia withdraws from the Council of Europe. This decision, which coincides with the council’s decision to terminate Russia’s membership in view of its expulsion, is much more serious than is generally understood.

This is not a simple diplomatic rupture. It is the smothering of hope not only for millions of Russians, but for hundreds of millions of Europeans whose countries remain members of an organization that emerged from the embers of Europe’s last horrific conflagration. .

The Council of Europe describes itself as the continent’s leading human rights organisation. Its objective, unlike the European Union, has been to build democracy and the rule of law more than to develop trade. But the two go hand in hand, and no EU member, or future member, can remain outside it.

The flagship achievement of the Council of Europe is its Convention on Human Rights. From its magnificent courthouse in Strasbourg, France, the European Court of Human Rights adjudicates cases brought under the convention, a commitment to fundamental human rights that is enforceable against states by their own citizens, obliging often require states to pay damages and make systemic reforms to their legal and policy frameworks.

Russia applied for membership just months after the collapse of the Soviet Union, desperate to join any international organization that would have it. This posed a dilemma, because the Russia of 1992 did not in any way fulfill the conditions for membership of the Council of Europe: pluralist parliamentary democracy; respect for human rights; and the rule of law. Russia did not help his case by launching a brutal war in Chechnya while his claim was pending.

But council leaders saw an opportunity. Membership could catalyze respect for these values, rather than requiring them a priori. Bypassing admission rules could translate ambitions into practice. As one Council rapporteur put it: “Integration is better than isolation; cooperation is better than confrontation.

Admitting Russia was the gamble. And for 25 years, beginning with Russia’s entry into the Council in 1996, the game was worth the effort. Advised by experts in the council and elsewhere, and pressured to meet membership requirements, Russian began to change. Legislation emerged like mushrooms after rain. New codes of civil and criminal law and procedure, the backbone of any legal system, have been adopted to meet the council’s standards. Russia has declared a moratorium on the death penalty. The country created a professional bar association, with a commissioner for human rights, and adopted laws protecting religious organizations and national minorities.

And Russia has ratified the European Convention on Human Rights, opening its judicial system to the control of the Court of Strasbourg. Surprising to many skeptics, Russia has paid the judgments it has lost and, with less regularity but some progress, has responded to demands to reform its practices to prevent similar violations in the future.

Of course, there were enormous difficulties. The candle sputtered. Many found the original sin to be Russia’s premature admission without adherence to the principles which, according to the council’s statute, were the “common heritage” of the “like-minded countries of Europe”. Russian cases crowded the court’s docket.

As Russia’s strength and confidence grew, its leaders grew bolder to defy the constraints of membership. War against Georgia. Annexation of Crimea. And, at the national level, laws recovering in Strasbourg the last word in matters of human rights.

The candle is now extinguished. Former President Dmitry Medvedev found what he called “a good opportunity to reinstate…the death penalty” in Russia. More than 17,000 Russian cases are pending before the European Court of Human Rights. Those who are not downright abandoned have virtually no hope that any judgments against Russia will be rendered. These include cases of high-profile dissidents like imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny and ordinary pensioners, students and citizens with grievances that run the gamut of human experience.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that he was leaving “without regret”.

The hope that Russia’s membership offered a chance for improvement has faded. And the loss of hope must be mourned. The world will suffer for years from the effects of isolation instead of integration; confrontation instead of cooperation.

Jeffrey Kahn is a professor of law at Southern Methodist University. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

Find it full review section here. Do you have an opinion on this problem? Send a letter to an editor and you could be published.