The session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) starting on Monday (24 June) will be decisive for the future of this pan-European organisation upholding common standards on human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
PACE will discuss amendments to its rules of procedure, which would limit the scope of its so-called 'sanctions' – restrictions on voting and participation rights in the assembly that may be applied to parliamentary delegations of member states for violations of their obligations.
These amendments have been proposed as a potential way out of the current crisis prompted by imposing restrictions on Russian delegation's rights in 2014-2015 in response to the annexation of Crimea and Russia's involvement in the conflict in Donbas.
Russia, in its turn, starting from 2016 refused to participate in the work of the assembly until its delegation's rights are fully restored and the very opportunity of imposing such sanctions is eliminated, and in 2017 stopped paying its financial dues to the Council of Europe's (CoE) budget.
We have reached the point where Russia threatens to leave the CoE and cease to be party to the European Convention on Human Rights.
The current amendments appear to be a reasonable solution, as they resolve the discrepancy between the provisions of the assembly's rules of procedure on restrictions of national delegations rights and those of the CoE's statute on equal participation of member states in making key decisions in the organisation.
Importantly, the amendments preserve the opportunity of imposing certain restrictions. They are also in line with the decision of the committee of ministers on the matter adopted in Helsinki on 17 May.
This approach has its pros and cons, but its critics do not propose any alternative options, apart from keeping the status quo.
It is clear, though, that it cannot be preserved any longer: if the crisis is not resolved this week, there is a high risk of Russia's pre-emptive withdrawal from the CoE at the end of June.
Besides, Russian authorities have flagged their participation in the elections of the new CoE secretary general, also scheduled for this week's session, as an essential condition for staying. The prospect of Russia's withdrawal should be taken very seriously and not seen as 'just a bluff'.
Not adopting any decision this week would likely trigger Russia's departure from the organisation with all the negative consequences for the Russian public and the CoE as a whole.
As pointed out by Russian human rights defenders in November 2018, this move would by no means stop massive human rights violations in the country or contribute to the resolution of the conflict in Donbas and the return of Crimea under Ukrainian jurisdiction.
No more influence?
Instead, it would have irreversible consequences and eliminate even the existing limited opportunities for the CoE to influence the situation in Crimea and Donbas as well as inside Russia.
Any sanctions are a tool to achieve some goal, not a goal in itself.
The goal of introducing restrictions on the rights of the Russian delegation to the PACE was pushing Russia to observe the norms of international law with regard to the annexed Crimea and the conflict in Donbas.
Five years after, we have to admit that these sanctions have not achieved their goal.
So, those who really care about compelling the Russian authorities to observe international law should rather focus on finding more effective ways and tools for ensuring that.
How this can be done?
First, the continued membership of Russia in the CoE should be actively used by all concerned parties as an opportunity to build up stronger pressure on Russia to ensure implementation of its obligations.
The PACE should much more actively use all the other tools it has, such as the monitoring procedure, thematic reports and resolutions, posing questions to the committee of ministers and prompting it to apply Article 46 in the cases of persistent non-implementation of judgements of the European Court of Human Rights by Russia.
These measures should be complemented by other practical tools outside of the CoE, including in bilateral relations with Russia.
Secondly, the current crisis should lead to an upgrade of the CoE's toolbox to address grave and systemic violations of the organisation's norms by its member states.
Follow-up to the committee of ministers' suggestion to develop a new procedure for a coordinated response to such situations, including a decision on suspension or expulsion of a member state, should be prioritised.
Developing the two above-mentioned lines of action would demonstrate that the PACE has not just resorted to a short-term tactical solution to the crisis by allowing an 'unconditional return of the Russian delegation' and thus 'appeasing the aggressor' but, on the contrary, is working on a long-term stronger strategy of responding to violations committed by Russia, as well as other member states.
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