Russia's Accession to the Council of Europe and Compliance with European Human Rights Norms

By A, Pamela | Demokratizatsiya, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Russia's Accession to the Council of Europe and Compliance with European Human Rights Norms


A, Pamela, Demokratizatsiya


Pamela A. Jordan is an assistant professor of history at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada.

Since 1990, the Council of Europe has admitted twenty-one former Soviet bloc countries, bringing the total number of member states to forty-five. 1 The Council's territory now spans nearly fifteen time zones, from Iceland to the Russian Far East. Member states have agreed that drawing former communist countries into dialogue is better than isolating them. According to the organization's official Web site, its "main job" is to act "as a political anchor and human rights watchdog for Europe's post-communist democracies." 2

The Council's member states collectively decided that accession would persuade new entrants to observe certain human rights standards out of a mutual interest in fostering the growth of liberal democracies, and out of an agreed notion of what an expanded European identity is. New entrants were motivated to join by a combination of shared values and cold calculation--an inclination to use the organization to legitimate their own regimes and, for many, to further their goal of joining more prestigious groups, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or the European Union (EU).

In this article I will examine the reasons that member states allowed the Russian Federation to enter the Council of Europe in 1996, the extent to which Russia has fulfilled its entrance criteria, and Russia's overall approach to relations with the organization. Specifically, I will examine the controversy around human rights violations inflicted on civilians by Russian forces in Chechnya. Russia has been accused of violating norms embodied in the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (the Human Rights Convention), the Council's key human rights instrument.

The Council of Europe and European Identity

Formed in 1949, the Council of Europe is an intergovernmental organization with a mandate to promote parliamentary democracy, rule of law, and human rights. Member states cooperate on a voluntary basis for reasons of mutual benefit. Over fifty years after its founding, the Council continues to perform useful functions in the sphere of human rights and acts as a forum for the discussion of common interests. However, the Council's critics point out that its aims are somewhat vague and its decision-making structure weak. In addition, its powers are largely advisory, and all decisions are made by consensus, an approach that sometimes works to undermine the organization's ability to make innovative policy and punish derelict members. Critics also argue that the Council has a limited capacity to enforce the human rights norms of the Human Rights Convention, as well as the convention's thirteen protocols.

One source of particular controversy is that the Council defines Europe beyond the traditional geography to include areas that it considers culturally part of the continent, such as the Caucasus. The current secretary-general of the Council of Europe, Walter Schwimmer, has emphasized a European community of values that would extend beyond political and economic interests to foster cultural diversity, including tolerance and mutual respect. 3 But neither the human rights community nor even some members of the Council's administration, the Secretariat, agreed on the issue of early entrance. Critics of Schwimmer's approach say that expansion has undermined the organization's "moral authority" and the Human Rights Convention's legitimacy. 4

General Compliance with Entrance Requirements and Human Rights Norms

The Council of Europe has close to two hundred legally binding treaties or conventions, including the Human Rights Convention, the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture, and the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. At the same time, it is the European organization with the fewest demands on its new entrants. To meet the basic entrance requirements, new member states must ratify the Human Rights Convention, as well as Protocol 6 on abolishing the death penalty (except during wartime). …

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