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

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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