Frontlines and backtracks
Sep 25th 2008
Laying down the law, or just laying down?
WHETHER you look at soft or hard power, Europe’s ability to defend itself appears wobbly. A poll in the Financial Times this week showed that German public opinion strongly opposes the use of force to defend the Baltic states, even if they come under military attack from Russia. True, that is not an imminent threat, and probably never will be. But it hardly sends a comforting signal to the hard men and hotheads in Russia who may think that such a stunt would have a chance of success.
Things are also looking pretty gloomy at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. As the custodian of the European Convention on Human Rights, the Council has perhaps the best claim to be the repository of the ideals of liberty and justice on which Europe likes to think its civilisation is based.
At issue are several upcoming debates in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). This body’s members are moonlighting—in wordy, worthy and well-deserved obscurity—from their main jobs as national lawmakers in the 47 member states. It is the sort of place that makes even the European Parliament look important.
Next week PACE will consider a report of a committee that has just visited Moscow and Tbilisi. The rapporteur, Luc van den Brande, is a centre-right member from Belgium and a possible candidate to become the next Secretary General of the Council of Europe. That requires Russian support. So expect no fireworks there. PACE will also debate the Georgia conflict and adopt a resolution. Nobody will notice that either.
More important is a debate on a motion presented by 24 PACE members challenging the credentials of the Russian delegation, on the implied grounds that the elections in December 2007 were not free and that Russia’s conduct in Georgia breaches its obligations as a member state. That could lead either to the temporary suspension of Russian members’ voting rights (as happened once before in 2000, at the height of the second Chechen war), or full suspension of Russian membership (similar to the punishment meted out to Belarus in 1997). Other measures under consideration include setting up special monitoring of Russia’s human-rights record. Since Georgia joined PACE, it has been monitored on rule-of-law issues, the functioning of democratic institutions and refugee rights. But there are no special measures for Russia.
What looked like a good way to highlight international criticism of Russia’s actions in Georgia may now backfire. The Kremlin is gearing up to attack its critics as an unrepresentative Russophobic minority. It says that if its credentials are removed—or indeed if it is “put in a corner”—it will pull out from the Council altogether. That risks blocking almost the only way in which Russian citizens can sue their government for human-rights abuses in an international court.
If the attempt to challenge the Russian delegation’s credentials flops badly, it will underline the support that the Kremlin enjoys, even post-Georgia, in big European countries and among the continent’s main political parties. Russia refused to meet Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister and the current chairman of the Council’s committee of ministers, when he wanted to visit Moscow. Nobody seems to have objected to this public snub. PACE may also discuss a motion challenging the Georgian deputies’ credentials, on the grounds of severe shortcomings identified in the parliamentary elections there in May. Preventing the issue of new credentials requires fewer votes than lifting existing ones.
PACE was never very important. But Russia is flouting the Council of Europe’s core principles. If the Council flinches now, its members might as well all stay at home.
Friday, September 26, 2008