Human rights, corruption and what is at stake for the Council of Europe
This week, a rebellion is unfolding in Strasbourg, directed against Spanish senator Pedro Agramunt, the President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).
This rebellion is a response to allegations of serious corruption in PACE in recent years, as well as concern over the autocratic capture of this, the oldest, human rights body in Europe. It is a story involving the regime of Ilham Aliyev in Baku, Russian ultra-nationalists such as Leonid Slutsky, Italian Catholic politician Luca Volonte, who received 2.3 million euro from Azerbaijan, and in the last episode even Syrian president Assad in Damascus.
This week, the assembly has had enough, and a coalition of politicians, across party lines and from different national groups, decided that Pedro Agramunt could no longer remain president; this was stated in public, as well as strongly communicated in private.
To explain the frustration and collapse of trust in Agramunt, booed off stage while chairing the opening of the spring session in the Palais de l’Europe in Strasbourg on Monday, one has to see how different developments came together:
First, Agramunt made his career in PACE working on and with Azerbaijan. He visited Azerbaijan more often than any other MP in the assembly; he observed, and helped whitewash, elections in Baku for many years. As one of the rapporteurs of PACE for Azerbaijan he subverted the assembly’s work on political prisoners. As more evidence came out how Azerbaijan operated its lobbying machine in recent years, these actions appear in a different light, and raise serious questions how he understands the role of PACE.
Second. since late 2016 Pedro Agramunt resisted; and even worked to block; serious proposals for an investigation into corruption allegations involving Azerbaijan, as demanded by over 100 MPs in January 2017. In this, Agramunt cooperated with his others, including Spaniard Jordi Xucla, who leads the liberal group in Strasbourg. They used excuses and procedural tricks to oppose any investigation. Why don’t they have any interest in clarifying what happened?
For a short introduction, see the latest ESI newsletter:
Third, Agramunt (together with Destexhe and Xucla) went to Syria in March. He went with Russian ultra-nationalist Leonid Slutsky on what was a Russian PR tour to bolster Assad. There was no other point to this trip: it served no humanitarian purpose and Agramunt did not “build any bridges” either. So why did he go?
Fourth, Agramunt did a bad job addressing many serious concerns and question of the assembly. He offered implausible and contradictory explanations. He apologized for the reaction by the members to his visit to Assad. He apologized for having been manipulated by Russians (Agramunt and Slutsky have been friends for years). What Agramunt did not apologise for was having visited a war-criminal with a Russian delegation.
Agramont, Xucla and Destexhe represent what is wrong in the Council of Europe today. Their cynical views about human rights, their close relationship to autocrats, procedural games and striking vision of the role of the Council of Europe have contributed to lead this institution into its biggest credibility crisis in decades.
This week the assembly in Strasbourg also decided on an external and independent investigation – an unprecedented step – into these corruption allegations in Strasbourg. ESI has worked on this issue for six years now. Here is more:
On 26 January the Immunities Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), chaired by Social-Democrat Liliane Maury Pasquier from Switzerland, adopted a unanimous declaration on allegations of corruption “to send a clear message of zero tolerance”:
“The committee calls on the Bureau of the Assembly to set up an independent external investigation body to assess the functioning of the Assembly and shed light on hidden practices that favour corruption, the only measure which would end impunity for abuses and restore confidence in the Parliamentary Assembly, its actions and decisions.”
On Friday 27 January the PACE Bureau responded and unanimously agreed:
“… that an independent external investigation needs to be set up to shed light on hidden practices that favour corruption. The Bureau charged the PACE Secretary General with the preparation of a Memorandum on the draft terms of reference of the independent external investigation body.”
Then, on 3 March 2017, Wojciech Sawicki, the Secretary-General of PACE, presented a concrete proposal for an independent external body to investigate corruption allegations (see below).
This is an encouraging and constructive outline. If it would be adopted PACE would be able to restore its honour and credibility. At the same time it would be naive not to expect strong resistance on the part of those who resist (or even fear) transparency.
At a meeting of the Bureau in Madrid on 9 and 10 March no agreement could be reached on how to respond to the Sawicki proposal. It is certain that some will now try to water it down, or to present an alternative plan, that would fall far short of what the Bureau decided on 27 January.
The best would be for the Bureau of PACE to forward the Sawicki proposal to the next regular PACE plenary meeting in April. On a matter of such importance, it is the whole assembly that needs to be brought into the debate. As a background to this discussion: this is the text of the proposal made by the Secretary General.
3 March 2017
Bureau of the Parliamentary Assembly
Allegations of corruption within the Assembly – setting up of an independent external investigation body
Memorandum by the Secretary General of the Parliamentary Assembly
At its meeting on 27 January 2017, the Bureau of the Parliamentary Assembly decided to set up an external investigation body to shed light on the allegations of corruption within the Assembly. This decision was taken in response to the concerns expressed by numerous national delegations, the EPPD/CD and SOC political groups, many Assembly members, as well as non-governmental organisations working in the field of the protection of human rights and the fight against corruption. This decision is in conformity with the position of the Committee on Rules of Procedure, Immunities and Institutional Affairs, to which the matter had been referred by the Bureau on 23 January, as it appear in the declaration adopted by the committee on 26 January.
The Bureau instructed the Secretary General of the Parliamentary Assembly to “prepare a memorandum on the draft terms of reference (legal basis, composition, duration, tasks, competences)” of the independent external investigation body as proposed by the Committee on Rules of Procedure, Immunities and Institutional Affairs.
It should be pointed out that the decision for the Assembly to set up a strictly external investigation body, in such a context, is an unprecedented one. Furthermore, as is the case in many national parliaments, the Assembly has thus far opted for internal parliamentary committees (ad hoc committees comprising members of the Assembly), in accordance with the means and procedures traditionally implemented by parliaments in application of their investigative powers. There was unanimous agreement, both within the Rules Committee and the Bureau of the Assembly, that this option was inappropriate to the case at hand and would not meet the many clear calls for an independent external investigation body.
The aim of this memorandum is to establish the legal and operational reference framework of the investigation body, which should be set up as quickly as possible.
Statutory and regulatory framework
Pursuant to Article 24 of the Statute of the Council of Europe, the Parliamentary Assembly “may with due regard to the provisions of Article 38.d,establish committees or commissions to consider and report to it any matter which falls within its competence under Article 23, to examine and prepare questions on its agenda and to advise on all matters of procedure.”
This was the case for the “Commission of Eminent Statesmen”, known as the “Colombo Commission”, established by the Assembly through Recommendation 994 (1984) on the future of European co-operation. This Commission, tasked with working out future prospects for European co-operation “beyond the present decade”, comprised eight eminent European figures from various member states serving in individual capacity.
Accordingly, the Assembly has the authority to establish an independent investigation body, whose terms of reference must be approved by the Assembly (in the framework of the Progress Report of the Bureau and the Standing Committee).
Draft terms of reference of the independent external investigation body
3.1 Title and length of the term of office
The Assembly decides to set up an independent external investigation body to look into allegations of corruption within the Assembly.
It shall begin its duties with effect from the appointment of its members and its duties shall terminate on the submission of its final report, or at the latest on 31 December 2017. The Bureau of the Assembly may extend the investigation body’s terms of reference, if need be.
The purpose of the investigation body is to carry out a detailed inquiry into the allegations of corruption and fostering of interests made against certain members or former members of the Assembly, to examine the practical functioning of the Assembly in tis various activities (including, but not restricted to part-sessions, committee and sub-committee meetings, rapporteur missions, election observation missions and participation in various events) and its decision-making mechanisms in order to:
– verify whether there are any forms of individual conduct by members of the Assembly or former members of the Assembly which have not respected the provisions of the Code of Conduct for members of the Parliamentary Assembly and other relevant codes of conduct;
– identify any practices contrary to the Assembly’s ethical standards, and determine the extent thereof;
– establish, in light of these findings, whether there is sufficient proof to take action against members of former members of the Assembly, pursuant to paragraphs 19 and 20 of the Code of Conduct for members of the Parliamentary Assembly;
– draw up recommendations on the measures to be implemented to rectify the shortcomings and fill the gaps in the Assembly’s ethical framework.
The investigation body shall comprise three members, independent senior figures, from institutions enjoying the highest moral reputation, having proved and acknowledged professional competence, expertise and experience in connection with the mission of the investigation body (such as ethics office, financial auditor, fraud examiner, legal processional having server as an investigator, prosecutor, judge or expert in procedures for monitoring ethical standards).
Members must have experience of parliamentary functioning and, if possible, knowledge of the functioning of the Council of Europe.
Members are appointed by the Bureau of the Assembly, which shall seek a suitable balance of skills and knowledge – and wherever possible a gender balance. These appointments are submitted to the Assembly for ratification. Once appointed, members cannot be dismissed.
A vacancy caused by resignation or death shall be filled for the remainder of the term of office by the Bureau of the Assembly, subject to ratification of the appointment by the Assembly.
3.4 Procedure and competence
The investigation body shall decide on its mode of operation, its working methods and the procedures required to enable it to fulfil its mission, in keeping with the legal and regulatory framework of the Council of Europe.
The investigation body shall gather and make use of all relevant information and all documentary, testimonial and material evidence necessary for the fulfilment of its mission. It may, in particular:
– summon anyone, in particular any member or former member of the Assembly and any member of the Assembly secretariat, to give evidence,
– hear any witness wishing to be heard by the investigation body,
– request the assistance of any national authority of a member state,
– have access to or request the provision of any document it deems relevant for its investigation, irrespective of its form or medium – printed, manuscript, electronic, photographic, audio/video recording – or its nature – public or private.
The investigation body shall have no jurisdictional competence. It may decide to transmit the information it has gathered to any national judicial authorities, on official request, in the context of ongoing criminal investigations or proceedings, in keeping with the legal and regulatory framework of the Council of Europe.
The work of the investigation body shall enjoy the utmost confidentiality.
The investigation body shall report back to the Bureau of the Assembly, presenting a final report. This report shall be made public. The investigation body may decide that parts of this report shall remain confidential.
The working languages of the investigation body shall be the two official languages of the Organisation.
The investigation body shall sit in Strasbourg (at the seat of the Council of Europe) and may, in the exercise of its mission, travel to any member state.
In drafting its recommendations, the investigation body shall refer to the ethical standards in force in the Assembly and shall take account of the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights and the work of the Group of States against Corruption (GRECO), MONEYVAL and the Venice Commission.
3.5 Status of the investigation body
The members of the investigation body shall serve in an individual capacity, independently of their national obligations.
In the exercise of their duties, the members of the investigation body shall enjoy the privileges and immunities granted to experts of the Council of Europe (applicable under Article 2 of the Protocol to the General Agreement on Privileges and Immunities (ETS No. 10)). Council of Europe member states are called upon to facilitate the mission of the investigation body and, in particular, guarantee the freedom of movement of its members within their respective territory.
Privileges and immunities are granted to the members of the investigation body in the interests of the Council of Europe, not for their personal benefit, in order to enable them to carry out their duties in an independent and efficient manner.
3.6 Rights and obligations
Pursuant to paragraph 21 of the Code of Conduct for members of the Parliamentary Assembly, the members and honorary members of the Assembly shall undertake to co-operate fully within the investigation body, in the exercise of its mission and at every stage of its investigation. They shall be required to provide any information demanded of them and any document in their possession.
Staff of the Council of Europe Secretariat, including the Assembly secretariat, shall be covered, from the point of view of whistle-blowing, by the provisions of Rule No. 1327 of the Secretary General of the Council of Europe of 10 January 2011 on awareness and prevention of fraud and corruption.
The protection recognized by the above mentioned Rule No. 1327 shall apply to any witness heard by the investigation body who, although they are not Council of Europe Secretariat members, participate in the Council of Europe’s activities, wherever they may be held – in particular trainees, experts, consultants.
The rules governing the access to, holding of and exploitation of Council of Europe documents apply to the investigation body. The Secretary General of the Council of Europe is called upon to facilitate the mission of the investigation body by putting at its disposal the documents, of any kind, which the investigation body believes are necessary. The investigation body shall make use of confidential or restricted documents only if they are directly related to the investigation it is tasked with.
In its final report the investigation body shall mention any refusal to co-operate, or any refusal to disclose information or to give access to or transmit any document necessary to carry out its duties. In case of non-cooperation or insufficient cooperation, members or honorary members of the Assembly would be liable to the sanctions provided for by the Code of Conduct for members of the Parliamentary Assembly.
Means and material conditions of operation of the independent investigation body
The Secretary General of the Parliamentary Assembly shall ensure that the investigation body is provided with the administrative and financial resources required to fulfill its mission and covering all operating costs of the investigation body and its secretariat (wages, fees, per diem, travel expenses in accordance with the rules applicable to Council of Europe official journeys, insurance).
The investigation body shall be assisted by a secretariat with knowledge and expertise in the functioning of the Council of Europe, that is however independent of the Parliamentary Assembly.
The premises made available to the investigation body shall ensure a working environment guaranteeing confidentiality, security and calm.
The Bureau of the Assembly is invited to consider the above proposals and:
– adopt the draft terms of reference of the investigation body, as it appears in Part 3. This must be ratified by the Assembly, in the framework of the Progress Report of the Bureau and the Standing Committee;
– instruct the Secretary General of the Parliamentary Assembly to hold private talks with relevant institutions/ senior figures likely to accept the mission assigned to the investigation body, and to come up with proposals on the composition of the investigation body at the next Bureau meeting;
– instruct the Secretary General of the Parliamentary Assembly to guarantee the investigation body the resources required to ensure its proper functioning, in accordance with the stipulations contained in Part 4 and, to this end, make provisions in the Assembly budget for the appropriations necessary for the functioning of the investigation body, and if need be, in accordance with Article 38.d. of the Statute of the Council of Europe, ask the Secretary General of the Council of Europe to allocate a specific budget for the investigation body.
The success of the independent investigation body’s mission shall rest on the full co-operation of the members and former members of the Assembly, and on that of the staff of the secretariat of the Council of Europe, in particular of the Assembly. Having regard to the rights and obligations of staff members and the guarantees conferred upon them by their status, it is essential to notify the Secretary General of the Council of Europe of these terms of reference. Council of Europe staff members are responsible to the Secretary General, pursuant to Article 2 of the Staff Regulations, and the latter shall therefore be invited to formally impose on the staff members a duty of co-operation with the investigation body.
The mission of the independent investigation body may also require the full co-operation of the national authorities of certain member states – national parliaments, Ministries of Foreign Affairs and of Justice, judicial services, etc. Accordingly, the Committee of Ministers should be informed of the arrangements put in place by the Assembly and be invited to adopt a Resolution in which it would officially call on the member states to support and facilitate the mission of the investigation body, to pledge to fully co-operate with the investigation body, in particular to guarantee the freedom of movement of its members within the territory on of their respective state, and to ensure that any witness will be afforded legal protection at national level.
 Parliamentary delegations of Switzerland on 17 January, Luxembourg on 24 January, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway and Sweden in a joint letter on 25 January, Belgium, the Netherlands on 25 January, France, Germany on 26 January and thereafter delegations of Italy on 3 February and Austria on 17 February.
 See Written Declaration No. 624 on 25 January 2017 on Parliamentary Assembly integrity (Doc. 14256).
 The opinion of the Directorate of Legal Advice and Public International Law was sought for the purposes of drafting this memorandum.
 Article 38.d: „The Secretary General shall refer to the Committee [of Ministers] requests from the Assembly which involve expenditure exceeding the amount already allocated in the budget for the Assembly and its activities“.
 In compliance with Article 29 of the Stature and Rule 41.a of the Assembly’s Rules of Procedure, an Assembly resolution establishing committees or commissions shall require a two-thirds majority of the representatives casting a vote.
 The draft terms of reference are based on existing precedents for independent committees of inquiry set up over the past decade at international level.
 Representatives attending meetings convened by the Council of Europe (…) shall, while exercising their functions and during their journeys to and from the place of meeting, enjoy the following privileges and immunities:
Immunity from personal arrest or detention and from seizure of their personal baggage, and, in respect of words spoken or written and all acts done by them in their official capacity, immunity from legal process of every kind.
Inviolability for all papers and documents.
The right to use codes and to receive papers or correspondence by courier or in sealed bags.
Exemption in respect of themselves and their spouses from immigration restrictions or aliens registration in the State which they are visiting or through which they are passing in the exercise of their functions.
The same facilities in respect of currency or exchange of restrictions as are accorded to representatives of comparable rank of diplomatic missions.
The same immunities and facilities in respect of their personal baggage as are accorded to members of comparable rank of diplomatic missions.”
The representatives, however, “shall not be exempt from arrest and prosecution when found committing, attempting to commit, or just having committed an offence.” Lastly, “the immunity from legal process in respect of words spoken or written and all acts done by them in discharging their duties shall continue to be accorded, notwithstanding that the persons concerned are no longer engaged in the discharge of such duties.”
A few thoughts, written one year ago in autumn in the sunny garden of the Museum of Modern Art in Moscow, where I was then a visiting fellow.
The dark clouds of that moment – the sense of fragility of our institutions and norms and moral emotions – are very much more obvious today. Then was the moment of Willkommenskultur in Germany and Austria, a generous, emotional, fragile sense of possibility, that was real – perhaps my forebodings came from observing it from Russia, with sympathy and concern.
27 September 2015 (Facebook)
(Sonntag, im Garten des Museums für Moderne Kunst in Moskau)
Wir sollte uns keinen Illusionen hingeben.
Das Recht auf Asyl – all die Konventionen, auf die wir uns heute noch berufen können, in Kommentaren oder vor Gerichten – verschwindet in dem Moment, in dem Mehrheiten das wollen. Oder in dem die Minderheiten, die das wollen strategischer vorgehen als die Verteidiger der Menschenrechte.
Das hat Orban gerade wieder gezeigt, unbestraft; seine “Asylverfahren” an der Grenze sind eine Farce, doch seine Zustimmung steigt.
Das zeigen uns seit Jahren andere Mitglieder des Europarates. Azerbaijan war Vorsitzender des Europarates, verhaftete alle Menschenrechtsaktivisten … wo war die Reaktion? (jenseits der Menschenrechtsorganisationen, die das Regime einfach ignoriert). Wo war der Europäische Menschenrechtsgerichtshof? Abgemeldet, vom Regime ignoriert, vollkommen ungestraft. Heute, wo wir ihn brauchen, ist der Europarat eine unglaubwürdige Institution. Wir haben diese Entwicklung ignoriert, weil viele dachten, das betrifft nur Autokraten im fernen Osten Europas. Das war ein großer Fehler. Einer von vielen der die Menschenrechte in Europa in Gefahr bringt.
Jede, auch die grundlegendste, Menschenrechtsnorm, ist ständig in Gefahr sich im Nichts aufzulösen, wenn der Rückhalt schwindet. (Die Folter wurde in Russland Anfang der 19 Jahrhunderts von einem russischen Zaren abgeschafft; wir wissen was später passierte …).
Orban weiß das: er hat das Ende des Kommunismus, mit allen seinen Normen, erlebt. Er weiß, dass alles Menschliche vergänglich ist. Nun erwartet er, dass dies auch für das europäische Bekenntnis zu Asyl gilt, wenn er nur die Angst vor Muslimen instrumentalisieren kann.
Wenn die Briten über einen Austritt aus dem Menschenrechtsgerichtshof laut nachdenken, ja, eine Regierungspartei damit Wahlkampf macht, und gewinnt, warum dann nicht Ungarn? Warum nicht Österreich, unter einem Bundeskanzler Strache? Was bleibt dann? Wenn mehr Regierungen wie Orban denken, wer verteidigt dann “europäische” Standards? Diese werden dann einfach umdefiniert. Darauf setzt er. Daran arbeitet er.
Diese Krise sieht er als eine große Gelegenheit. Und die, die nicht seiner Meinung sind – wie mächtig auch ihre Positionen, ob nun Bundeskanzlerin in Berlin oder Präsident der Kommission in Brüssel – setzen ihm derzeit nichts entgegen: keine Strategie, nur Hilflosigkeit. Oder Ärger. Das aber stört ihn nicht; im Gegenteil.
Die Situation ist brandgefährlich. Das “Ende der Scham”, der Moment in dem Menschenrechte grundsätzlich in Frage gestellt werden, sinnentleert werden, umdefiniert werden, betrifft längst nicht nur Azerbaijan oder Russland.
Das Fundament auf dem unsere Grundrechte stehen kann zerbrechen. Das ist schon oft geschehen in der europäischen Geschichte. Darum geht es in diesem Ringen heute.
If you come to our website often you will have noticed that ESI writes a lot about the Council of Europe. You might wonder why. Are there no other, more important European issues? And why is our stance so critical?
One reason that we keep returning to issue relating to the Council of Europe is that almost nobody else does, outside of a small group of human rights activists mainly concerned about the crackdown on civil society in Azerbaijan.
For large European think tanks and for most European media, the crisis in the Council of Europe still does not exist. Or does not really matter. Why care about debates in PACE, or about what the secretariat in Strasburg does or does not do, when there is a war in Ukraine, crises in the Middle East and challenges to democracy in old and new EU members?
We at ESI disagree. We believe that when the institution that gave us today’s European flag, and that remains the guardian of the moral constitution of democratic Europe – the European Convention on Human Rights – is fatally undermined, this points to a very serious crisis for all of Europe. It is a wound that must not be allowed to fester. Today the Council of Europe resembles Ouroboros, the snake of Greek mythology that devours itself … in this case, by destroying the moral basis on which it was founded.
Look at the European order today, and Europe’s big three organisations: the OSCE, the EU and the Council of Europe.
The OSCE has a justification as a forum for debate even with autocracies. This was its original conception in Helsinki in 1975. This is why Belarus (and Uzbekistan and the Vatican) can be members today.
The EU has to defend its own standards internally (and do a much better job at this) and externally, in particular when it comes to its ongoing enlargement talks.
For the Council of Europe, however – the first institution to enlarge to almost all of Europe in the 1990s – the current crisis of values, norms and credibility is existential. It has to be a club of European democracies, or it does not have any reason to exist.
This is why Belarus is not a member today. This is why Russia and Azerbaijan currently have no place as members, unless things change in both countries. There really is no use for an institution focusing on human rights and democracy when these standards are defined by autocracies and thus undermined for everyone else.
ESI strongly believes that the Council of Europe should matter. It should be talked about more. It should be given the resources to fulfil its crucial role better. But the key recource missing today is not money, but attention. Think tanks and media should follow what happens in Strasburg. It is a shame that the foreign ministers of influential countries attend its meetings so rarely (to begin with Germany and France) and that parliaments throughout Europe pay so little attention.
We believe that it is important to preserve the idea that one day the European Convention on Human Rights will be the normative basis for all of Europe (including Russia and the South Caucasus), not just the current European Union. Just as it was crucial to preserve this aspiration in the decades prior to 1989 in a divided Europe. It may look unlikely now; it definitely looked implausible then.
Europe’s moral constitution
For what is the European Convention? It is the basis of civilised life, in a continent known as much for autocracy and human rights violations as it is known for the enlightenment and rights.
It is comprised of the following basic commitments, that are once again under pressure across the continent:
Article 1 Respecting the rights in this convention
Article 2 The right to life – a duty to refrain from unlawful killing and to investigate suspicious deaths
Article 3 Prohibits torture, and “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. There are no exceptions on this right.
Article 4 Prohibits slavery, servitude and forced labour
Article 5 Provides the right to liberty, subject only to lawful arrest
Article 6 Provides a detailed right to a fair trial
Article 7 Prohibits retroactive criminalisation
Article 8 Provides a right to respect for one’s “private and family life, home and correspondence”, subject to certain restrictions “necessary in a democratic society”.
Article 9 Provides a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
Article 10 Provides the right to freedom of expression, subject to certain restrictions “necessary in a democratic society”.
Article 11 Protects the right to freedom of assembly and association.
It is irresponsible to close our eyes to the fact that today the European Convention is being mocked by certain member states of the Council of Europe, not occasionally but systematically. Today these core articles are not only disregarded but also openly challenged.
If Azerbaijan or Russia were expelled from the Council of Europe today (or would preemtively leave voluntarily) then this does not mean that a democratic Azerbaijan or Russia might not one day join again. In fact, that would be the goal. It would give human rights defenders in these countries a clear objective. And they should be supported in this in all possible ways. Greece was not in the Council of Europe under military rule in 1968 … and later rejoined it as a democracy.
Today we have the worst of all worlds. We see the standards of the European Convention on Human Rights mocked, the institution and its bodies paralysed. We see these institutions turned against the very people in those countries who defend them there … and who risk jail and worse for doing so.
We see democrats indifferent to the institution, while autocrats invest resources to capture and manipulate this critical intervention. Things are upside down. It is time to put them back in order.
We have written before about parallels between the fate of the League of Nations and what is currently happening in Strasburg (See : Europe’s Abyssinian Moment).
Here is another thought-provoking parallel from Europe’s early 20th century history. At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference East European nations signed treaties guaranteeing rights to minorities. These treaties called for religious freedom and civic equality. Minorities were granted the right of petition to the League. Governments in Eastern Europe complained about these “unjust requirements that the great powers did not impose on themselves”. These countries had a point. However, the proper response to this complaint was not to water down these rights, but to apply them equally to everyone.
Instead, the solution chosen was the worst of all. These rights were never applied and these treaties were never taken seriously. Despite there being a special League of Nations Minorities section it proved to be a “weak reed”: of 883 petitions the League received between 1920 and 1939, only four resulted in condemnation of the accused state. When the first anti-Jewish university quota system was introduced in Hungary in 1920 protests at the League of Nations failed to secure the law’s withdrawal. (For more on this see Bernard Wasserstein’s fascinating book “On the Eve – the Jews of Europe before the Second World War.)
Perhaps then too there were serious and influential people who thought that Europe had more important problems than to defend norms and treaties concerning human rights in small East European nations.
However, this assumption was wrong then and it is wrong now. The crisis in Strasburg matters not just to a few brave human rights defenders on the European periphery. It matters to all of us.
This contradiction matters
PS: For more on the crisis of the Council of Europe, see also the latest ESI newsletter:
Heading to Strasbourg this week – Ambassador of Azerbaijan to the EU
RIDDLE OF THE WEEK
Dear friends, here is a riddle to begin your week:
Why is Fuad Isgandarov, Azerbaijani ambassador and head of its mission to the EU, heading for Strassburg this week for the next session of the European Parliament? Who will he meet and what will he try to achieve in the interest of his country?
Tomorrrow the Conference of Presidents of the European Parliament will chose this year’s Sakharov Prize winner. One of the leading contenders is one of the most inspiring human rights activists in the world today: Azerbaijani Leyla Yunus.
There is support for Leyla Yunus across the different party groups. And there is growing concern in Baku. More and more of the great people held in its prisons today are being recognised for their courage and awarded international human rights prizes. Millions spent on lobbying firms, on invitations, on hosting events, on paying “experts” to say how oil matters more than a handful of prisoners … all undermined by a few human rights prizes?
The prospect of an Azerbaijani woman being named together with Nelson Mandela, Wei Jingsheng, Aung San Suu, Memorial, Reporters without borders or Malala Yousafzai should delight Azerbaijani patriots. Already being nominated as one of three finalists in 2014 is a huge distinction for Leyla Yunus.
We hope the Ambassador, heading to Strassburg, will spare a moment to read this latest letter by Leyla Yunus – in jail, separated from her husband, who is also held in isolation, as are so many of her fellow human rights defenders:
“They didn’t just arrest us as a married couple. By doing so they restored a “glorious” Stalin tradition. They indicted us to such a bouquet of fantastic accusations (even Yezhov and Vishinki would lag behind), including a life sentence… While in detention, I clearly understood their goal is not just the destruction, but brutal torture, insults, and physical torment, when death becomes the desired escape from the terrible suffering. This is our reality, and I clearly realize it. In other words, our work received the highest mark on the highest scale… Arif I feel so lonely without you! For 36 years we were shoulder to shoulder, and were hoping to celebrate our 40th anniversary but they are so afraid of us… Good Lord, how could a small, weak, sick woman scare the ruling government? With what?! I know you would say, “traveler will tell the Lacedaemon, that here we lie, true to the Law”. But I still think Leonidas had it easier, simpler… One of 300s.”
And perhaps he will reflect, as he meets these MEPs, about what really serves his country’s interest.
“… they know from their own experience in 1968, and from the Polish experience in 1980-1981, how suddenly a society that seems atomized, apathetic and broken can be transformed into an articulate, united civil society. How private opinion can become public opinion. How a nation can stand on its feet again. And for this they are working and waiting, under the ice.”
Timothy Garton Ash about Charter 77 in communist Czechoslovakia, February 1984
“How come our nation has been able to transcend the dilemma so typical of defeated societies, the hopeless choice between servility and despair?”
Adam Michnik, Letter from the Gdansk Prison, July 1985
We then studied the puzzle of increasing repression / decreasing criticism on the part of the Council of Europe, and the strange pattern of international election monitoring in Azerbaijan:
There have also been a number of newsletters – many making the case for greater support to Azerbaijani human rights defenders, arguing that their fate matters to everyone concerned about the future of human rights in Europe:
While European institutions are finally recognising the heroism of human rights defenders in Azerbaijan – thus making clear that their struggle is of global significance – every single political prisoner so far rewarded remains in jail. Our attention needs to shift to the only real prize: to get international institutions and states to act and to sanction.
It is time for a really broad-based campaign … targetted not the authorities in Baku, who are beyond shame, but human rights institutions betraying human rights defenders. Note: Azerbaijan, the current chairman of the Council of Europe, holds in its jails today the men and women winning or considered for the very highest prizes in the field of human rights in the world. And so far the Council of Europe – including its general secretary – acts as if this has nothing to do with them.
Mr. Jagland has issued a press release on the events in Ferguson, Missouri … how about issuing a press release congratulating Anar Mammadli, the winner of the Vaclav Havel Prize 2014, who used to work with the Council of Europe, and is in jail today?
Mr. Jagland has met the Azerbaijani president already three times in recent months. How about cancelling all participation of the Council of Europe secretariat in events in Baku until there is news about the situation of Ilgar Mammadov … who is in jail, but disappeared more than a week ago, has no contact with lawyers … and who also worked for and with the Council of Europe? Or until Leyla Yunus, Rasul Jafarov and so many other human rights defenders are released?
Mr Jagland: if you think doing nothing remains an option for your institutions you underestimate the strength and moral purpose of the broad-based coalition that is currently emerging across Europe.
The case of Leyla Yunus
Here is the most recent email ESI sent to all the members of the European Parliament who decided on 7 October 2014 on the final short list of three candidates for the 2014 Sakharov Human Rights Prize.
Today you will decide on the finalists for the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize 2014.
We appeal to you to give your vote to Leyla Yunus – on behalf of all other human rights defenders and dissidents in Azerbaijan. Almost 100 of them are imprisoned like Leyla (see this list), the others face a chilling wave of repression.
These Azerbaijanis stand in the tradition of those who fought for human rights during Soviet rule. Distinguished Russian activists, some of them former political prisoners, underline this in a joint letter to the European Parliament that was published last week (available in English andRussian). Three of them – Lyudmila Alekseeva, Sergei Kovalyov and Oleg Orlov – shared the EP’s Sakharov Prize in 2009.
Oleg Orlov, Lyudmila Alekseeva and Sergei Kovalyov receiving the Sakharov Prize 2009
Photo: European Parliament
Your vote for Leyla will be a vital sign to Azerbaijan’s besieged human rights community that they are not alone.
It will be a sign that the European Union, led by the Parliament, does not close its eyes to repression anywhere on our continent.
It could be crucial also for this generation of human rights defenders. The fate of Leyla, one of the most respected human rights activists in the country, is telling. Prison conditions in Azerbaijan are appalling. At age 58, Leyla suffers from diabetes and has caught a flu in her cold cell. She has been repeatedly beaten. Last Saturday, her lawyers stated that her health “has extremely deteriorated” and “that there is no guarantee that Leyla will survive until the end of this year”.
The authorities are now going after the handful of remaining lawyers who defend human rights defenders, and torture has returned to jails in Azerbaijan.
There is hardly any news of Leyla’s husband Arif Yunus, a historian and peace activist, who was arrested in early August, a few days after Leyla, and is held at a facility notorious for torture of inmates.
Leyla and her husband Arif Yunus, both imprisoned by the Azerbaijani authorities
For 10 days, there has been absolutely no news of Ilgar Mammadov. All food parcels sent to him by his family have been turned down. The director of the Council of Europe’s School of Political Studies in Baku intended to run against President Aliyev in the elections in October 2013, but was arrested beforehand and sentenced to 7 years in prison last March. The European Parliament demanded his immediate release already last year. Lately he announced that he faces serious pressure to write an open letter of apology to the government. Then he disappeared.
The “crime” of Mammadov, the Yunuses and the other Azerbaijani political prisoners is their desire for a pluralist society, for respect of human rights, for peace – for the values on which the EU has been built.
Azerbaijan is member (currently even chair) of the Council of Europe. It has accepted the Paris Charter for a new Europe. It is formally committed to all the norms on which Europe’s post-cold war order is built. To watch one regime dismantle all civil liberties with impunity and make any human rights work impossible, and to let it happen, creates a terrible precedent. It undermines the norms on which European security rests.
Today you can take a step to prevent it from happening.
With the very kindest of regards,
Chairman of European Stability Initiative (ESI)
Azerbaijani human rights activist and defender of the right to free and fair elections, Anar Mammadli, is the 2014 winner of the Vaclav Havel Prize.
This is a promising, fair, and even courageous decision by the jury members in charge of awarding this prize, for it also highlights a dramatic failure – by the very institution on whose behalf this prize is awarded, the Council of Europe (CoE).
It is imperative that the Council of Europe act now, following this strong signal. At the very least the following should happen immediately:
All activities of the Azerbaijani chairmanship of the Council of Europe should be boycotted or suspended until Anar Mammadli (winner of the 2014 the Havel Prize winner) and Ilgar Mammadov (former chair of Council of Europe School of Politics and, according to ECtHR, a political prisoner) are released. It is unacceptable that a Council of Europe chair is under serious suspicion of systematic repression.
The secretary general of the Council of Europe should appoint a panel of respected European judges to examine the list of Azerbaijani political prisoners and reports by eminent human rights organisations, and report back to the Committee of Ministers (CoM) of the Council of Europe and to PACE with their findings.
Members of the Committee of Ministers in the CoE should sternly warn Azerbaijan about its treatment of prisoners, and demand full and unconditional cooperation with international monitors, including full access for outsiders to visit prisoners, given the serious allegations of abuse.
Awarding Anar Mammadli with the Vaclav Havel prize is a strong signal and critical first step. But without further action by the Council of Europe, handing out an award is meaningless – and will definitely not save this institution’s soul. Recent months and this award have also made it obvious just how far the Committee of Ministers, PACE, and the Secretariat have diverged from their original mission to protect and ensure human rights.
The time to correct this is now.
Background on why the Havel Prize 2014 was given to the right person
In recent months, it has become obvious that the Azerbaijani government has decided to finish, once and for all, any opposition in the country.
New NGO laws make the critical work of civil society organisation impossible. Dozens of NGOs have had their bank accounts frozen, including those with grants by the European Union. Staff members of human rights organisations are in prison, in hiding, or expecting criminal charges. International organisations such as Transparency International, Open Society Foundations, NED, NDI, IREX, etc. have not been spared in this onslaught. Reports and accounts of torture in jails are multiplying. Monitoring mechanisms have long since broken down. Recently, a UN team sent to investigate cases of torture had to cut its visit short due to obstruction by the Azerbaijani authorities.
It is obvious that the Aliyev regime expects to get away with all of this, emerging unscathed. The government in Baku ignores the occasional complaints, viewing them as no more than a nuisance, (a non-binding resolution in the European Parliament here, another report or statement from an NGO there). Azerbaijan’s government rests assured that when senior officials from Western Europe and the United States come to visit, the issue of human rights remains very low on their agenda.
In this regard, the failure of the mechanisms within the Council of Europe is particularly disheartening. Ever since PACE rejected the January 2013 resolution on political prisoners in Azerbaijan (See: Azerbaijan debacle: The PACE debate on 23 January 2013), all dams have burst:
There were the arrests of NIDA activists in 2013, who were detained for protesting violence against conscripts in the military. The young activists were sentenced to jail-terms of up to 8 years – on the very day Azerbaijan assumed the chairmanship of the Council of Europe in May 2014. (See: NIDA’s “Live not by Lies” Baku Court Speech – May 2014)
There was the arrest of Ilgar Mammadov, who was head of the Council of Europe School of Politics at the time of his arrest. Mammadov was sentenced to 7 years in prison in March this year. The fact that his case has been identified as a politically motivated by the ECtHR has not made any difference.
There was the arrest and sentencing of Anar Mammadli, the former advisor of the rapporteur on political prisoners, arrested just before the UK Foreign Secretary arrived in Baku in autumn 2013.
Then this past summer came the arrests of Leyla Yunus and Rasul Jafarov – the very people who coordinated Azerbaijan’s civil society to draw up a comprehensive list of political prisoners – despite the risk and despite lack of support from the Council of Europe. Almost immediately after releasing this list, Leyla, her husband, and Rasul were all arrested. (The list is a document of shame: www.esiweb.org/thelist)
These prominent arrests are only the tip of an iceberg. The government is blackmailing activists and journalists with sex tapes, pressuring their family members (who end up losing jobs or are threatened with arrest themselves), illegally seizing files related to cases brought to the ECtHR, and intimidating and threatening the few remaining lawyers who still take on political cases. And all of this is happening while Azerbaijan holds the chairmanship of the Council of Europe.
Additionally, PACE appointed Spanish PP member Pedro Agramunt as the new rapporteur on political prisoners. Agramunt is a man who has solidified his reputation as an apologist for the government in Baku, speaking out and voting against the adoption of a standard definition of political prisoners, presented in 2012. (See: Showdown in Strasbourg: The political prisoner debate in October 2012). Agramunt also voted against a January 2013 resolution that would have addressed the issue of political prisoners in Azerbaiijan — a resolution that Anar Mammadli helped prepare. The appointment of Agramunt as rapporteur on political prisoners in Azerbaijan adds insult to injury. (See also: A Portrait of Deception. Monitoring Azerbaijan or why Pedro Agramunt should resign).
A debate on the recent wave of repression has emerged within the Committee of Ministers recently. However, there has been no serious reaction by member states in the CoM or by the secretariat. It seems that everyone is waiting for the end of the Azerbaijani chairmanship, hoping that by then the limited interest in Azerbaijan’s human rights record will dissipate completely.
Perhaps the government will even release one or two political prisoners (its carousel policy), and claim that the “mechanisms” of protection are indeed working. However, as long as the Aliyev government is allowed to continue its repression, it may eventually succeed in destroying one of the most courageous human rights movements in Europe. Furthermore, with the 2015 parliamentary elections – and another corrupt and unfair electoral process – the authoritarian consolidation will have been completed.
Will awarding Anar Mammadli the 2014 Vaclav Havel prize mark the point at which the Council of Europe becomes aware of what is actually occurring – the capture of an established European institution tasked with protecting human rights – and start changing? One can only hope so.
She – they – deserve a prize from the EU. But which prize should it be?
Celebrate the courage of Euromaidan! Honor its activists! Support democratic Ukraine! Remind Europeans everywhere just how important events in the largest country of Eastern Europe are for the future of the continent.
There are good reasons to doubt that it is. These reasons have nothing to do with what happened in Ukraine in early 2014, but rather what is not happening in the EU now. Tens of thousands of Euro and a ceremony on TV is not the prize that Ukrainians have fought for, and will do little for them in this dark hour.
What is a real prize?
Let us first ask: what do Ukrainians need from the European Union today?
With their country under attack, their territory occupied, their people displaced and their soldiers locked in battle with Russian and Russian-backed forces, Ukrainian society hopes for substantive support from the EU – material, financial and moral. This includes credible and sustained sanctions against Russia, holding them accountable for the annexation of swaths of Ukrainian territory. It includes economic aid, assistance in coping with rising numbers of internally displaced and support for the cold winter that is looming. And, perhaps most important of all, it includes the promises made in Article 49 of the Treaties of the European Union: that once Ukraine meets the specified criteria, it might also have the chance to join the European Union, without any neighbouring country holding the right to veto. Just as the Baltics and Poland have.
It was in order to keep such a perspective alive that many Ukrainians risked their lives last winter, waving the blue European flag. To sustain the momentum of the Maidan protests, the Ukrainian people voted for political parties that promised to work towards a European future. During his inauguration, Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, again referred to the goals of Euromaidan. The European People’s Party also spoke of the movement’s vision, when it met in Dublin earlier this year.
This democratic vision is what the new European Parliament should be supporting today – through policy reform and concrete action. It is a vision that needs to be sold actively, both on the international stage and to European constituencies. The goals and ideals born out of Euromaidan need to be defended in the face of both indifference and skepticism. A strong restatement of this vision from the European Parliament – and meaningful and tangible support – would remind Ukrainians of what they are fighting for.
Of course, awarding a prize is much more simple than implementing palpable change. Standing on a podium next to people who have already become global stars in their own right, is easy. Perhaps it is too easy. It appears as a gesture of solidarity, but it is one without substance. At a moment when Ukrainians feel abandoned by Europe, a prize and accolades are not likely to reassure them.
There are other, more effective steps that could be taken to support Euromaidan, instead of giving the Sakharov Prize. For instance, the European Parliament could recognize the efforts of the Ukrainian people by bestowing a real award – the lifting of visa requirements for all Ukrainians. This is something that would truly benefit the people of Ukraine, carrying a strong promise of future EU integration.
By contrast, a symbolic gesture by the new European Parliament, at a time when Ukraine is facing profound existential threats, is a substitute for real action. This is not the first time such empty gestures have been made on the part of the European Parliament, though. In 2011, the EP took the obvious step of giving the Sahkarov prize to the activists of the Arab uprisings. The prize raised the hopes of brave activists for sustained support from Europe as they, like the activists in Ukraine, faced a watershed moment in their countries. But these expectations were never fulfilled.
An Egyptian prize winner was asked in 2011: “What could the EU and EP do to support the transition to democracy in the Arab world?” She noted: “I am against any form of foreign intervention, but I think the EP should insist on the application of universal humanitarian laws.” Today, many of the Tahrir Square activists are in prison, their organisations banned. The only European country that reacted strongly to this repression was Turkey.
Another 2011 Sakharov Prize winner, from Libya, explained: “[The Sakharov Prize] will be of great help to me and the Libyan people, because this is the first time that a Libyan received such a prize. So if you help me to do my job properly, it will help the Libyan people.” Today, Libya is in chaos.
The Syrian activist, Razan Zaitouneh, was a recipient in 2011 as well. Then in hiding, Zaitouneh was a human rights lawyer who had created the blog, “”Syrian Human Rights Information Link” (SHRIL), (which has since been taken down). On her blog she publicly revealed murders and human rights abuses committed by the Syrian army and police. Zaitouneh is quoted as saying: “The most beautiful part of the Syrian revolution is the high spirits of the Syrian people, who turned the protests into carnivals of song, dancing and chants of freedom, despite the bullets, arrests and tanks.” Since then, millions of refugees have had to leave Syria – although it is not the European Union that has given them shelter. On 9 December 2013, Zaitouneh, along with three other Syrian activists were kidnapped east of Damascus, in the city of Duma.
It was an easy decision to award a prize to courageous Arab activists in 2011. It was much more difficult to find practical ways to protect them and uphold their ideals. Awarding the Sakharov Prize was a gesture that failed to meet the expectations of long-repressed populations – much like the Arab Spring itself.
Shining the spotlight of attention
Euromaidan was the central story in Europe in 2014. The people who led it – Mustafa Nayem, Ruslana Lyzhychko and others – will be featured heavily in any review of this year’s events. They are famous, and they deserve to be.
In other words, by awarding them a personal prize, the European Parliament will add little to what the media and European leaders have already said. It will not bring the change that is now needed in Ukraine – Euromaidan is past the point where paying lip service and attention to their cause will solve the problems their country is facing. It is similar to awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the first African-American president, right after he was elected. The White House suspected that the award was more about getting Obama to visit Oslo, than the achievements of a newly elected president. It certainly left the world – and human rights – unchanged. Is this really what human rights prizes are for?
Making a difference?
Alternatively, one should ask the question: what can awarding such a prize actually accomplish? Can – and should – the Sakharov Prize be used to make a real difference? Not just to the way we look at the past, but also to the future?
Today, human rights are under assault across Eastern Europe, from Russia to Azerbaijan. Ukrainian political prisoners have fortunately been released as a result of Euromaidan. But 2014 has also seen dozens of dissidents elsewhere become targets of persecution.
In Azerbaijan, there are dozens of activists in prison; not victorious, but languishing; not celebrated, but isolated and unknown to much of the world. They are there for defending the values of free speech – the core idea behind the Sakharov Prize. They are paying the price for protecting the European Convention of Human Rights, but remain largely ignored by democratic Europe.
By nominating these human rights defenders for the Sakharov Prize, the European Parliament would celebrate the same values for which Ukrainians took to the streets. But it would also do something that has been difficult to achieve thus far. Something that Azerbaijani civil society is in desperate need of.
The human rights situation in Azerbaijan is not getting the attention or media coverage that Euromaidan has. Both causes are undoubtedly worthy of recognition. However, bringing attention to the plight of Azerbaijani activists by nominating them for the Sakharov Prize will result in substantive change, more so than would nominating Euromaidan. Ukraine is instead in need of a much different reaction from the European Parliament. It would be a missed opportunity not to take advantage of the power that the Sakharov Prize can have. The EP was successful in using the award to raise awareness about a dire situation in 2006, when it drew the attention of the world to the fate of Alexander Milinkevich, leader of the opposition in Belarus.
In this way, the European Parliament would also assert the value of human rights in petro-states, such as Azerbaijan – even those that have already invested millions in buying friends throughout Europe. After assuming chairmanship of the Council of Europe in May 2014, Azerbaijan has used its influence in the Council to launch an unprecedented assault on civil society. It is an autocracy with the same values and the same approach to “freedom” as Russia under Vladimir Putin. And we have seen what can come from such leaders, should they ostensibly be allowed to run free with their repressive tactics.
So, will European parliamentarians take a path that is obvious and uncontroversial? Or will they send a signal that could make a real difference? Honouring dissidents in Azerbaijan could have real impact. It might even save lives. It would be acting with a strong voice, not reacting passively.
Let me repeat: this is not about the relative merits of the various candidates. Euromaidan deserves the highest recognition. It deserves a prize from the EU. So this is our proposal: recognise Ukraine’s struggle with actions that will truly benefit its people, with the kind of support that is appropriate for where Ukrainians are in their fight towards liberalisation: put Ukraine on the white Schengen list and grant visa-free travel. And give the Sakharov Prize to the forgotten activists of today; human rights defenders who are suffering in the shadows as you read this, in prison for speaking out on behalf of others.