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One year after Russian expulsion from top European human rights body, Ukraine war rages on

In the year since Europe’s largest human rights organization cut its final ties with Moscow, the expulsion has done little to change Russia’s behavior.

(CN) — In a closed-door session last year less than a month before Russian tanks rolled over the border into Ukraine, representatives of the Council of Europe voted overwhelmingly to kick Moscow out of the international organization. 

Just a day earlier, the Russian Federation had informed the group it would leave.

Like sanctions, Russia’s expulsion from the international human-rights body was intended to send a strong anti-war message. Yet more than a year on, little has changed. 

The Kremlin still occupies large parts of the country, Ukrainian cities face a daily bombardment of missiles and hundreds of thousands of civilians have been displaced across Europe. The Strasbourg-based court is still processing a backlog of complaints against Russia, with more than 15,000 outstanding. It wasn’t until last September that the council fully disentangled itself from the rogue country.

Not to be confused with the European Union, the Council of Europe was created by the Treaty of London in 1949. Its original ten member states — Belgium, Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom — wanted to create an organization that would uphold human rights, democracy and the rule of law following the chaos of the Second World War.

Fast forward several decades to the early 1990s, and those ideals seemed to be gaining new ground in Europe. The Soviet Union had collapsed, and Russia moved to join the council — bringing hopes that membership would bring about real reform in the country.

There have been moments of genuine optimism, like in 1995, when Russia abolished the death penalty as part of its application process. Russia’s inclusion on the council has also brought real benefits for civil rights in the country, giving its 150 million citizens an avenue to seek justice from government abuse, Corina Heri, a researcher in international law at the University of Amsterdam, told Courthouse News in an interview. 

Mostly, though, critics say Russia has been a thorn in the side of the council and the connected European Court of Human Rights, weakening democratic standards and raising tough new questions about whether international bodies can effectively rein in rogue actors. And while the Council of Europe may have brought modest reforms to Russia, Russia has increasingly undermined the council by making it clear the group has little power to prevent even serious crimes against humanity. 

It’s a challenge the council has faced before as it’s worked to spread liberal democracy across the continent, including in the aftermath of a Greek military junta in the late 1960s. But this current conflict — in which one council member has launched a full-scale invasion of another member, leveling cities and massacring citizens — may prove to be the organization’s biggest challenge yet.

A contentious history

From the moment Russia first joined the Council of Europe in 1996, its membership was controversial. “There was a dilution of standards,” lawyer Peter Leuprecht told Courthouse News in an interview. 

The Austrian lawyer was hired by the Council of Europe in 1961  — but after 37 years with the organization, he resigned in protest in 1993 amid Russian efforts to join the council. “The way in which it was done was not serious,” he said.

Tensions like these have persisted for as long as Russia has been a member. In 1994, before Russia even gained full membership, the then-fledgling democracy had already lost its special guest status over what the council termed “indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force” in the First Chechen War.

But while the pair were an odd couple from the start, both the Council of Europe and Russia saw opportunity in the other. Russia is by far the largest and most populous country in Europe, and its inclusion gave the council an opportunity to expand liberal democratic values deep within the former Iron Curtain. Russia, meanwhile, wanted in on the European project. The European Union was expanding at the same time, and the 1993 Maastricht Treaty brought hopes of free movement and trade.


After decades of Cold War fears, the 1990s were an era of great hope for liberal democracy. The collapse of the Soviet Union had left the world with no conflicts between major world powers, prompting historian Francis Fukuyama to prematurely declare “the end of history.”

That optimism was shared by some Russians, even if they disagreed on what exactly the future should bring. Writing in a retrospective in 2019, Alexander Orlov, Russia’s former representative on the council expressed his country’s connection with the continent. 

“Russia is an integral part of Europe,” he wrote, “and Europe cannot be fully itself without Russia.” 

Russia’s relationship with the council hit a new low in 2014, when Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea and then used Russian soldiers without insignias to take over parts of Eastern Ukraine. The council’s Parliamentary Assembly suspended some of Russia's voting privileges and condemned the aggression. In retaliation, Russia refused to pay its membership dues.

The relationship never really improved from there — and it hit rock bottom in 2022 when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. On March 1 of last year — just one day after Ukraine filed a complaint with the council’s European Court of Human Rights — the court ordered Russia to stop the hostilities, becoming the first international judicial body to condemn the invasion. The Kremlin obviously hasn’t listened.

Svitlana Sushko, 62, sobs on Aug. 3, 2023, while visiting the grave in Kyiv of her youngest son, a Ukrainian soldier who was killed last year in the war against Russia. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Russia’s impact on the court 

International organizations of all stripes have struggled with what to do about members who fail to uphold their obligations. The United Nations has the same struggles with North Korea. The European Union faced this challenge when it admitted Bulgaria and Romania in the early 2000s despite concerns over corruption.

One common sentiment in international politics is that it’s better to include rogue countries in associations like the Council of Europe, where they might be reasoned with and contained, than to leave them out. Still, not everyone agrees inclusion is the best path.“Keeping countries in at any cost diminishes the Council of Europe,” Kirill Koroteev, a Russian lawyer who specializes in bringing cases against Russia to the ECHR, told Courthouse News.

The first judgment against Russia from the European Court of Human Rights came in 2002. A Russian national conscripted to assist with the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster in 1987 was awarded 3,000 euros ($5,000 today) for extensive radiation exposure.

But Russia hasn’t always implemented judgments against it — and the country has become by far the biggest supplier of cases before the court. By 2009, the court had a backlog of more than 120,000 cases, fueling a docket crisis.

In 2012, the court saw an average of 1,800 cases brought against any member state. That year alone, there were 22,358 complaints filed against Russia. 

As of 2022, 2,129 judgments and decisions against Russia remain pending at the court, with another 17,450 applications yet to be decided. The logjam has forced the court to make procedural changes and undermined their ability to handle cases within their jurisdiction.

“It completely reshaped the system,” said Heri, the University of Amsterdam researcher.

Russia’s refusal to abide by international court-orders sets it apart from most other countries. In the 1980s, after the court sided with a gay man who was interrogated by police in Belfast about his sexual practices, Northern Ireland quickly moved to decriminalize gay sex. Quick reforms like this are uncommon from the Kremlin.

To be sure, Russia’s inclusion in the court has led to some reforms. In response to ECHR decisions, the judiciary has made improvements in the civil case procedures in Russian courts, said Koroteev, the Russian lawyer.

A 2021 report by Human Rights Watch noted there have been small improvements in Russia. A researcher for Amnesty International likewise told Deutsche Welle last year that ECHR rulings have led to “marginal improvements.” And then there’s the death penalty, which Russia dropped in 1995 after pressure from the council.


Koroteev, the Russian lawyer, thinks Russia’s membership has made the court more timid. As he sees it, Russian judges make more modest rulings in hopes that the Kremlin might actually implement them. “It steers the court in a more conservative direction,” he said.

Then, there’s finances. Member states contribute based on their population and GDP — or at least they’re supposed to. In recent years, Russia has refused to pay, adding to tension and awkwardness with the council. Officials had to rely on the money because “the Council of Europe is a poor organization,” said Leuprecht, the former council lawyer who served as its second-in-command for years.

Now, with Russia back out of the council, it’s unclear if its inclusion led to more harm or good. While Russia has left its stain on the council, the council has clearly not been successful at spreading true liberal democracy in the Kremlin.

Even the death penalty is back in Russia. The day the expulsion was announced, former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev called for the death penalty to be reinstated in Russia. In June 2022, three foreigners fighting on behalf of Ukraine were sentenced to death in the Russian-backed Donetsk People's Republic — though they were ultimately handed over in a prisoner exchange.

Some politicians have sounded the alarm bells about these issues for years. In 2019, when Russia was once again threatening to leave the council, one up-and-coming Eastern European politician warned Western leaders weren’t paying adequate attention to the fox in the chicken coop.

“It’s a pity that our European partners didn’t hear us and acted differently,” then newly-elected Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a statement at the time.

A Ukrainian soldier rides atop an APC on the frontline in the Luhansk region, Ukraine, Sunday, May 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Libkos)

The summit in Iceland — and an eventual return?

Russia’s departure hasn’t stopped the Council of Europe from acting on behalf of its victims. A month after Russia’s expulsion was finalized, Ireland’s Minister for European Affairs, Thomas Byrne, called for the fourth summit in the Council of Europe’s history to be held in Iceland.

The meeting, Byrne said, should focus on “ensuring the most effective possible support for Ukraine and its people.”  The organization announced a new system to record the damage inflicted on Ukraine by Russia. The European Union pledged one million euros to help launch it.

The Register of Damages, as the system is known, opened its doors in July and allows victims to submit claims for the cost of the destruction of the war, not only for destroyed property but also for injuries or even the death of family members. It’s headquartered in The Hague, alongside a number of other important international bodies, including the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice.

“It is a first, necessary, urgent step" Marija Pejčinović Burić, the secretary general of the Council of Europe, told reporters after the announcement. No one expects that the register can bring full justice to Ukraine — but even still, the council is looking for ways to have an impact even after Russia’s departure. 

Aside from Russia, only one other country has ever left the Council of Europe. In 1969 Greece walked out of the organization over its treatment of political opponents by the Greek junta. But once democracy was restored to the country, Athens returned to Strasbourg.

It’s unclear how analogous the so-called Greek case is with the present-day situation. “International organizations were not nearly as complex as they are today,” Víctor Fernández Soriano, a historian at the Université libre de Bruxelles who studies the history of the Council of Europe, told Courthouse News.

In 1974, when Greece decided to return, it sent a letter to the Council of Europe asking to be let back in. The country was readmitted within months. “The Council of Europe said 'You’re welcome' when Greece asked to return,” Fernández Soriano said.

It’s unclear if things will be as easy for Russia — or if Russia will even re-implement reforms necessary to rejoin. Currently, Moscow has more than 17,000 complaints pending against it before the European Court of Human Rights and a further 2,600 judgments the Kremlin has not implemented.

The secretary of the Council of Europe continues to send Russia letters regarding its obligations under the convention, which remain in place regardless of its membership in the organization.

They haven’t had much success. “We have no contacts, either formal or informal, from Russia,” Clare Ovey, the Head of Department of the Execution of Judgments at the Council of Europe, told reporters during a press conference in April.

Whether officials like Ovey are ultimately able to rein in Russia could have broader implications for the future of international watchdogs, including not only the Council of Europe but other groups like the United Nations. In the wake of the Second World War, former U.K. Prime Minister Winston Church said he was “confident that we have now reached the end of nationalist wars.” His confidence may have been misplaced — but 74 years later, the organization he helped create is still trying to uphold the ideals of democracy and human rights.

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