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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Suspend Russia From the Council of Europe

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When Russia became a member of the Council of Europe in February 1996, the first Chechen war was at its height and it was paying as little attention to human rights violations as it does now. Indeed, four well-known lawyers gave numerous reasons why Russia should not be admitted.

However, Rudolf Bindig, the council's human rights rapporteur, justified admitting Russia to the council -- the task of which is to protect human rights, parliamentary democracy and the rule of law -- by saying that council members should differentiate between the "human rights situation" and a "political evaluation of the chances and perspectives for an improvement [of the situation]."

Article 3 of the Council of Europe's statute says: "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 realization of the aim of the council."

Bindig admitted that Russia had not fulfilled the conditions for admission, but argued that the key question was whether Russia's entry could prompt it to move closer to the standards of the Council of Europe. The majority of members gave Russia the benefit of the doubt, and accepted Russia as a full member, assigning it 18 seats in the council's parliamentary assembly and making Russia one of the five largest national delegations alongside France, Italy, Britain and Germany.

Critics said that by accepting Russia, the Council of Europe had decided to concentrate on European security and the project of unifying Europe at the expense of attention to human rights issues. Those in favor of Russia's admission argued that Russia was legally bound, not only by the statutes of the Council of Europe, but also by specific obligations undertaken when Russia was negotiating its membership.

Russia declared that it would settle internal and external conflicts peacefully; that it would strictly adhere to human rights provisions in international law, including when it was dealing with armed conflicts on its own territory; and that it would cooperate in good faith with international humanitarian organizations and enable them to carry out their activities in Russia. Despite statements by various Russian politicians to the contrary, these declarations were not noncommittal statements but binding obligations.

Admission to the Council of Europe was only the first step. On May 5, 1998, Russia ratified the European human rights convention and the convention for the prevention of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

The behavior of the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights with regard to Russia is a litmus test for Europe -- after all the Council of Europe was fully aware of Russia's tarnished human rights record when it decided to admit it.

Breaches of the law, however, continue to be perpetrated.

Take, for example, the bombardment of civilians. The destruction of the Chechen capital, Grozny, has been unparalleled: At the peak of the first war, an average of 4,000 explosions shook the city each hour. In Sarajevo, the highest registered average was 800. But arbitrary bombardments have not ended: In March 2003, the human rights organization Memorial reported the bombing of mountain villages, with the apparent intention of driving out the inhabitants.

Other breaches repeatedly reported are arbitrary arrests without warrants and illegal detentions, often resulting in the disappearance of the victims, extrajudicial executions, torture and inhuman or degrading treatment; and the use of land mines.

Chechen rebels break the law too -- above all, by taking hostages and carrying out armed attacks. But the degree to which Russian troops ignore fundamental human rights in their dealings with the civilian population makes Russia's behavior a serious case for all those who take liability of Council of Europe member states seriously.

The so-called "mopping up" and "special operations" that officials justify as part of the search for rebels have cost thousands of lives. Most of those who have disappeared or been found murdered were last seen in the custody of Russian military or security forces.

When indignation in Europe at the neglect of human rights issues grew at the beginning of the second Chechen war, the parliamentary assembly in April 2000 suspended the voting rights of the Russian delegation. Exclusion of Russia could have followed the suspension, but that could only have been done at a meeting of European foreign ministers. No European foreign minister or member state wanted to break with Russia on account of human rights violations, and in January 2001, the Russian delegation's voting rights were restored.

How does the Russian government legally justify conducting a war on its own territory? It has done so by calling it -- since the fall of 1999 -- a "counterterrorist operation," rather than a war. These operations are officially regulated by a law on the suppression of terrorism passed at the end of July 1998. The law defines a "counterterrorist operation" as specific measures undertaken to stop a terrorist act, to ensure the safety of individuals, to render terrorists harmless and minimize the consequences of terrorist acts. The law, far from offering protection from human rights abuses, encourages them. Article 21 of the law states that those involved in counterterrorist operations cannot be held legally liable for injury to the life or health and damage to the property of terrorists.

The hopes of lawyers and human rights activists rest on the judges of the European Court of Human Rights. But given its limited human and financial resources and time constraints, the court is hardly equipped to tackle the large-scale violations of human rights in Chechnya. In addition, there are practical difficulties to addressing massive and systematic unlawful acts in a court. Unlike previous cases brought to the Strasbourg court, most do not hinge on legal technicalities but on facts and poorly accessible evidence.

Russia was admitted to the Council of Europe for strategic reasons -- to pursue the worthy objective of pulling the country into the democratic orbit of Western Europe. Russia's great importance should not mean that it can do what it likes with impunity and without censure. So far the international response to Chechnya has been too little, too late, and too ineffective.

Article 8, which governs expulsions from the Council of Europe, is rendered meaningless if Russia's repeated failure to adhere to the council's statute goes unpunished.

Therefore Russia's membership should be suspended and its reinstatement be made conditional on the fulfillment of specific actions. Above all it should be demanded that actions be taken to make people legally responsible for the violation of human rights.

Seven years after admitting it, Europe's most important human rights body cannot afford to show patience to a Russia that has persistently failed to mend its ways.

Miriam Kosmehl is a human rights lawyer. This article is based on excerpts from "Chechnya and International Law," a chapter in the just published "Der Krieg im Schatten" (The War in the Shadows). She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.