(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.