The Russian Federation’s expulsion from the Council of Europe on March 16, 2022, and its forthcoming exit from the European Convention on Human Rights were precipitated by the invasion of Ukraine. But they follow a long and fraught history of conflict between Russia and European human rights institutions, a story that holds lessons about the proper purpose and composition of international formations aimed at protecting and promoting human rights.
In 2014, the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) removed Russia’s voting rights following the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s support for separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas region. Russia subsequently threatened to withdraw altogether; in response, and with support from France and Germany, the Council voted to restore Russia’s rights in 2019. The body suspended Russia’s voting rights in PACE before, in 2000 and 2001, because of atrocities committed in the Second Chechen War.
The attack on Ukraine exceeded European tolerance levels for Russian aggression. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs took steps to leave the Council the day before being expelled, and its statement reveals how the government misunderstood the organization. Russia claimed the Council “was created to consolidate the unity of European peoples… as a depoliticised entity destined to become the humanitarian and legal fabric of Greater Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok.” Russia accused European Union and NATO members of the Council of transforming it into an “anti-Russia policy tool, while rejecting dialogue on equal terms.”
Dialogue about human rights “on equal terms” should not mean equating human rights with oppression. But in part, Western European leaders have shared Russia’s interpretation of the Council’s purpose. The restoration of Russia’s rights in 2019 was called a “moral victory for the Kremlin” by the Ukrainian delegation. But French EU affairs minister Amélie de Montchalin opined that France “wanted to preserve the pan-European dimension of the Council of Europe,” or in other words, to “consolidate unity.” Then, apparently insensible to the contradiction it posed, she followed by saying, “We don’t do geopolitics here, the values we defend are human rights values.”
Indeed, since 1989, the Council of Europe often put geopolitical interests above fidelity to human rights principles, with inadequate attention to its basic purposes. With strong backing from Winston Churchill, the Council of Europe was established as a bulwark against totalitarianism and a specific defense against communism—as a moral community of states embracing clear standards protecting fundamental liberties and the rule of law. The rights enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights were drawn from a list proposed by French resistance fighter Pierre-Henri Teitgen. Article 3 of the Statute states, “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.”
But the Council admitted a number of states to the formation, with both immense goodwill and naivete, not because they conformed to the standards of the club, but in the belief that by joining, they would come to do so. In this regard, the process of enlargement was driven by some of the same aspirational reasoning that had animated the promulgation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which, in 1948, aimed at forging unity and peace by assuming an inclusive and lax approach to adherence to human rights standards.
The Russian Federation was admitted in 1996 in the belief that it would progressively conform to the Council’s human rights standards through legal and bureaucratic cooperation with the organization. This followed on the heels of a number of other dubious admissions decisions, including, for example, those of Turkey (1950), Bulgaria and Romania (1992), and Armenia and Azerbaijan (2001). Most in the human rights community have endorsed the admission of noncompliant states because it affords individuals access to justice through the European Court of Human Rights, a powerful argument; abused Russian citizens have won a series of cases before the Court.
Others have argued that those decisions, while providing individual remedies, have not changed practices, and that premature admission has tended to provide only an illusion of human rights compliance and has removed the incentive to reform. Indeed, once in the club, reform stalled in a number of new members, and some slid backward, the most dramatic example being the Russian Federation. What is more, the very principles and standards of the Council have been watered-down and confused in recent decades, a process seen in judgments by an increasingly activist European Court judiciary. This body even decided that the right to “peaceful enjoyment of possessions” includes a right to welfare benefits. In fairness, however, the influence of the Council’s original members seems at the heart of a number of questionable decisions that violate human rights, rather than uphold them.
Removal of Russia from the Council of Europe is an opportunity to better uphold the organization’s core principles and standards. It is problematic that our commitment to the universality of human rights has led us to value the widest possible participation in human rights bodies. We have seen international human rights formations as embodiments of the ideal of universality, and sought inclusion and unity, often sacrificing principles and standards. International human rights bodies have come to be thought of as social engineering projects that can change the political culture of a society. But especially in the past 20 years, nefarious powers have instead corrupted those organizations, turning the “rules-based international order” against itself. Fresh approaches to international human rights protection are thus needed.