Activists fear tensions between Moscow and the Council of Europe could have dangerous consequences for human rights. They argue Russians could lose the opportunity to lodge complaints at the European court in Strasbourg.
The deterioration in relations between Moscow and the Council of Europe could have a negative impact on Russia's cooperation with other structures within the organization, according to Russian human rights advocates. In particular, they're worried there could be adverse consequences for the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg.
The court's jurisdiction extends to all the Council of Europe member states that have ratified the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The Council of Europe is a separate body from the European Union and has 47 member states.
Responding to the annexation of Crimea, the Council's Parliamentary Assembly backed a resolution on Thursday (10.04.2014) to withdraw the voting rights of Russia's 18-member delegation. In the debate leading up to the decision, the assembly strongly condemned Russia's actions in Crimea as a violation of international law. The provisional ban would last until the end of the year. A further demand to completely remove the Russian delegation from the assembly was, however, rejected.
Calling on Strasbourg for help
Incidentally, the bulk of the complaints received by the ECHR come from Russia.
"Russian citizens lodge around 40,000 complains each year. That is a sad statistic," said Valentin Moiseyev from the Center for International Legal Aid in an interview with DW. Lawyers working with the NGO routinely defend victims of human rights violations before international institutions, including the ECHR.
According to Moiseyev, most of the cases they have to deal with relate to Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The article prohibits torture and aims to protect citizens from degrading treatment and police brutality. A significant number of Russians also opt to file complaints in Strasbourg because of "unfair trials" in their home country.
The right to retire
Irina Sergeeva, an attorney with the human rights NGO Moscow Helsinki Group, said she could point to several complaints involving cases where the Russian authorities shirked their obligations - for example by failing to provide housing for military personnel, or pension payments to older citizens.
They've had some success with lawsuits in this area, said Sergeeva. A number of retirees in Russia file complaints because their pensions aren't fully paid and they can't pay for expenses in their own home. In such cases, said Sergeeva, the Russian courts often take the government's side. It's usually only after the ECHR gets involved that the Russian complainants are able to enforce their rights.
Money or rights?
But even if citizens' rights are upheld in the ECHR, human rights activists lament that implementing the Strasbourg rulings in Russia can be a major problem. Moiseyev said although Russian authorities are usually willing to pay compensation, they're doing little to stop the civil rights violations that lead to complaints in the first place.
"It appears as though the Russian authorities want to make amends by simply offering these payments to their citizens," Sergeeva said.
But activists agreed that, despite these difficulties, the Strasbourg court is still extremely important for the Russian people. Moiseyev said organizations like his legal aid NGO and Moscow Helsinki Group are gradually helping to promote the rule of law in Russia. That also means pointing out shortcomings in the state and the legal system.
'Last hope for justice'
Human rights advocates believe Russian citizens stand to suffer most from a break down in relations between Moscow and the Council of Europe. Those who turn to the court in Strasbourg do so because it's a last resort, a last hope for justice, Sergeeva said.
This last hope shouldn't be taken away, said Lyudmila Alekseeva, Chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group. She said she is convinced Russians would lose hope in the idea of their country as an integral part of Europe if cooperation between Russia and European institutions like the Council of Europe comes to an end.
"Russia can only move closer to Europe if it remains a member of the Council," she said.