16 March 2022
Russia has withdrawn from the Council of Europe. The country’s membership in the organisation ceased on 16 March. What does Russia’s exit from the organisation mean going forward? Is it really possible that the death penalty will once again be reinstated in Russia? And what will happen with applications made to the European Court of Human Rights? Roman Kiselev, head of Legal Programmes at the Moscow Helsinki Group, answered these questions in an interview with the online publication 7×7.
Why did Russia become a member of the Council of Europe?
The organisation was founded after the Second World War in order to provide a platform for dialogue among European countries around the founding principles for a new post-war democratic Europe. The Council developed European standards regarding democracy, the rule of law and human rights. After the collapse of the USSR, all free European countries became members of the organisation and participation in the body was in many ways considered a status symbol of a free and democratic country.
By being part of the organisation, Russia gained prestige, confirmed its status as a democratic European power, and clearly demonstrated its interest in mutually beneficial cooperation. It also allowed Russia to distance itself from its image of being a threat and redefine itself as part of the European space of culture and values. It provided access to advanced practices and legal methods which Russia actively began to adopt. Russia became a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights and Russian citizens gained access to the European Court of Human Rights [ECtHR].
How will Russia’s exit from the organisation affect ordinary Russians?
It is initially likely that the majority of Russians will not notice Russia’s exit from the Council of Europe. The ECtHR is not even that well known in Russia. Many of our fellow citizens undoubtedly face injustice and serious violations of their human rights. They will no longer have access to a court of last resort in Strasbourg, which can facilitate payment of compensation, release from custody, the initiation of criminal proceedings, the annulment of court judgments and many other measures. Russians will also lose the opportunity to make authorities aware of progressive practices to which they must conform. It will become far easier for officials to talk about Russia’s unique path which will take into account their own notion of democracy, the rule of law and human rights.
Russia’s withdrawal from the Council of Europe will be especially painful for human rights activists, who often relied on the Council of Europe in their work. In recent years, Russian human rights defenders have developed extremely effective tools when working with the Council of Europe institutions and this has yielded at least some results. The work of OVD-Info alone in bringing cases on a regular basis to the ECtHR was something to see! Now this work will become far more difficult.
Will Russians be able to lodge appeals with the ECtHR?
The ECtHR will examine any appeals regarding human rights violations lodged before the date of withdrawal. However it is impossible to predict whether Russia will implement these decisions. International law demands that obligations are carried out, however there is no international truncheon that would force Russia to comply. Bearing in mind that even during their period of membership Russia was not particularly prompt in carrying out court rulings, it can be assumed that in the deteriorating political climate the authorities will be even less motivated to comply.
What will change in terms of the state itself?
It is impossible to say with any great accuracy. Firstly, courts will lose even the slightest incentive to refer to ECtHR practices in their work. This means that certain amendments and practices that have not been fixed in law may begin to disappear over time.
Secondly, there is a possibility that legal practices will slowly begin to diverge from practices common in Europe. If, for example, we had not been part of the Council of Europe, our judicial system would very likely have looked substantially different since earlier reforms were influenced by ECtHR practices and Council of Europe standards, and they used the same vocabulary (terminology) and methods. It is, however, unlikely that we will see a total rollback of the reforms associated with the Council of Europe.
It is being said that the death penalty will return to Russia
Naturally anything is possible. I would steer clear of being dramatic, it seems more scare tactic than a real prospect, however recently we have seen many things that previously seemed impossible. Public opinion in Russia regarding the death penalty is rather vague. For that reason I wouldn’t rule it out as a possibility.
Translated by Marjolein Thickett