Readers will recall that an early challenge to the resilience and capacity of the Council of Europe came in 1967 when a Greek military coup ushered in the Regime of the Colonels. The Regime was responsible for systematic violations of human rights including torture, violations of the right to life, due process restrictions, and limitations on core political participation rights including freedom of assembly and expression. The very raison d’être of the Council was threatened by a state that had abandoned democracy and was engaged in widespread human rights violations. Provoked by the audacity of these violations, in a system created to uphold democratic values and human rights, a number of European states responded boldly. At the urging of the Parliamentary Assembly and relying on the inter-state accountability mechanism contained in the European Convention (Article 33) Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands filed a complaint before the Human Rights Commission of the Council of Europe in September 1967. The Commission found that Greece was liable for numerous violations of the Convention including torture.
In sequence, the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly asked the Council of Ministers to apply Article 8 of the Council’s statute and request Greece to leave the organization. On the 12th December 1969, the Greek Colonels acted first, and withdrew from the Council a possibility covered by Article 7 of the Statute. Greece did not return to the Council until 1974 when democracy was restored.
The Council of Europe faces similar challenges of legitimacy and compliance as a result of the recent actions taken by Russian in Ukraine. Ukraine was the 37th member of the Council of Europe, joining on November 9, 1995. The Russian Federation became the 39th member state of the Council on 28 February 1996. The annexation of Crimea comes against a volatile backdrop of sustained non-compliance by Russia with multiple decisions of the European Court of Human Rights finding breach of the ECHR.
The concern of the Committee of Ministers is palpable. On March 20th, the Committee condemned the referendum being held in Crimea. It continues to insist that the crisis in Ukraine must be resolved peacefully, in accordance with international law norms. Strong public statements have been accompanied by a visit in the past weeks to Kiev by the Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland. At its spring session in Strasbourg on 7-11 April the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) will debate a motion to reconsider the already ratified credentials of the delegation of the Russian Federation on substantive grounds (under Rule 9.1.a of the Rules of Procedure) and is likely to hold an urgent debate on threats to the functioning of democratic institutions in Ukraine. One would however expect that there is more action to come.
The Council of Europe is the European continent’s leading human rights organization. It is comprised of 47 member states and has shown significant bi-lateral capacity to challenge states violating the European Convention on Human Rights, both by way of inter-state litigation and being prepared to ouster a state simply unwilling to play by the democratic rules. Beyond motions of disapproval, there are two very clear options available to the Council and member states given Russia’s actions. First, to encourage states take an inter-state action against Russia so that a formal finding of breach for human rights violations is sustained. Second, for collective action by the Committee of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly to suspend Russian privileges and ultimately to ouster Russia from the Council. Mere condemnation without action poses a crisis of legitimacy for the Council of Europe when a state flagrantly violates the human rights and democracy faces of the Council and faces no obvious consequences. The power of club membership must to used to vindicate human rights protections in Europe — otherwise many will doubt the value of belonging to the club at all.