Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 70

The Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) took an unexpected and politically gutsy step yesterday when it voted for an immediate withdrawal of Russia’s voting rights in the assembly and began a process by which Moscow could see its membership in Europe’s premier human rights organization suspended. Yesterday’s vote for the suspension resolution was overwhelming, and appeared to reflect a determination by delegates to at last put concrete pressure on Moscow to end its bloody war in the Caucasus. European governments have been sharply critical of the Russian military actions, but have shied away from going beyond verbal denunciations. Yesterday’s vote will now compel them to deal more directly with the issue. The Russian delegates to the assembly, meanwhile, denounced yesterday’s vote and walked out of the assembly in protest. Among other things, they charged that the move by PACE could hang a new “iron curtain” around Russia.

The resolution charged Russia with having violated “some of its most important obligations under both the European Convention on Human Rights and international humanitarian law.” It added that government ministers should start suspension proceedings against Russia if “substantial, accelerating and demonstrable progress not be made immediately” in the North Caucasus, and asked for ministers to report to the council in June. Permanent ministerial representatives, meanwhile, are to hold an emergency meeting today in Strasbourg to discuss the situation. Of particular interest, the PACE resolution also urged member governments to take Russia to the European Court of Human rights for atrocities committed against civilians.

The vote for an immediate suspension of Russia’s voting rights yesterday was a surprise. Sentiment had clearly been building among PACE delegates for a strong response to the Russian war efforts, particularly in view of recent allegations by a host of international human rights groups that Russian troops are guilty of atrocities in Chechnya. At the same time, however, there has been a reticence in both Europe and North America to move too forcefully against Moscow. That reticence has been based on fears that punitive actions against Moscow could plunge relations between Russia and the West back into a deep freeze. The elevation of Vladimir Putin to the Russian presidency has only intensified the willingness of Western governments to downplay events in Chechnya to promote broader relations with Moscow. That the Council of Europe was heading in the same direction appeared evident earlier in the week, when reports said that the draft resolution being circulated called for Russia to be given a deadline of May 31 to meet PACE’s demands for progress toward a ceasefire demand. The timing of the resolution was for some reason changed at the last minute, however, to demand an “immediate” move by Moscow to begin satisfying the Council’s demands. The immediate withdrawal of voting rights and the launching of suspension procedures began on that basis.

That does not mean, however, either that Russia’s full suspension from the Council of Europe is likely or that related decisions will be reached quickly. That is because the Strasbourg-based Council can withdraw voting rights from member countries but cannot suspend members without the approval of member governments. Suspension, moreover, would require unanimous agreement by member governments. Officials said it could take several months before a final decision on the matter is taken (International Herald Tribune, The Guardian, April 7; BBC, Reuters, UPI, AP, April 6).

It is worth noting that the Council of Europe has never in its history fully suspended a member state. The last move by the Council to suspend a member came in 1960 after a military coup in Greece. The new regime in Athens pulled out before the council’s final decision. Turkey was suspended from the council’s parliamentary assembly from 1981-1984, but was not thrown off the council (AP, April 6).

Whether European governments follow through and actually suspend Moscow from the Council, yesterday’s vote is already a major embarrassment for the Russian government and for President Vladimir Putin. Russian officials, who had mounted a major campaign in Strasbourg to deflect any anti-Russian vote, had earlier warned repeatedly that a vote for suspension would strain relations between Russia and Europe. Among other things, they warned that Moscow would exclude Council of Europe representatives from humanitarian aid groups allowed to operate in Russia’s North Caucasus.

Moreover, in an effort to forestall a suspension vote, Moscow had taken several small steps to meet council demands. They included a pledge made by the Russian Foreign Ministry to permit three representatives from the Council of Europe to join a Russian commission that has been tasked with monitoring human rights in Chechnya. In addition, Russia’s Lower of House of parliament, the State Duma, released a report earlier this week saying that Russian military investigators had carried out inquiries into “more than 300 crimes apparently committed by [Russian] soldiers in Chechnya.” That report followed the arrest of a Russian colonel–Yuri Budanov–on charges of having raped and killed an 18-year-old Chechen woman.

The problem with these Russian moves was that they were clearly half-measures–at best–aimed mainly at blunting European criticism. The pledge to place three Council of Europe representatives on the Russian human rights commission, for example, included a provision prohibiting these three representatives from making public statements of any sort regarding their experiences in the Caucasus (Washington Post, April 6). The State Duma report, for its part, included only eight crimes committed by Russian soldiers against civilians out of the more than 300 crimes investigated. And of those eight, three had been dismissed (AFP, April 4). The arrest of Budanov, finally, prompted one human rights spokeswoman to point out that a single prosecution will not begin to address the hundreds of war crimes allegedly committed by Russian troops, “including summary executions and rapes” (see the Monitor, March 31).

Yesterday’s Council of Europe vote comes at a time of increasing pressure on Moscow to stop its war in the Caucasus. UN human rights chief Mary Robinson visited the North Caucasus this past weekend and on Wednesday called for an independent probe into the alleged Russian atrocities in Chechnya. Russian President Vladimir Putin, moreover, is expected to meet today with top representatives of the European Union. Particularly in the wake of yesterday’s vote, Chechnya seems sure to dominate the discussion agenda.