How Ireland helped bring Russia in from the cold

Irish politicians went against UK in voting for Russia’s return to Europe’s human rights watchdog

A defining moment in this era of constant tension between Europe and Russia played out this week in an unlikely setting. In the vast, cavernous chamber of the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, politicians from across the organisation's 47 member states opted to allow the Russian delegation to return to the fold with full voting rights.

Those rights had been revoked over the annexation of Crimea in 2014, prompting Russia’s delegation to withdraw from the assembly altogether a year later. In 2017, Moscow raised the stakes by freezing its financial contributions to the organisation. Unless the council changed its rules to ensure no delegation could ever again have its voting rights withdrawn, Moscow said, it would leave altogether. What ensued was a diplomatic sequence as significant as any in the history of the organisation – and one that could have wide repercussions.

Many people's first response to this news will be to ask: what is the Council of Europe? Founded in 1949 to promote democracy, human rights and the rule of law – and entirely separate from the European Union – the club consists chiefly of two bodies: the Committee of Ministers, comprising the foreign ministers of each member state, and the parliamentary assembly, which draws its delegates from national legislatures (four Oireachtas members have seats). The council's bible is the 1953 European Convention on Human Rights, which all member states are pledged to uphold. The convention is enforced through the European Court of Human Rights, located across the road from the council headquarters in Strasbourg.

The council's founding members were all western European states with broadly similar values, but with the fall of the Iron Curtain it rapidly expanded eastwards to take in a swathe of ex-Soviet bloc states in transition to democracy. Russia was admitted in 1996. The move was not greeted with universal acclamation within the club, but Moscow, under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin, was saying all the right things. "With the victory of democracy in Russia and with our membership in the Council of Europe, the territory of freedom has greatly expanded," Yeltsin said a year after accession.

Threat to withdraw

The Kremlin's threat to withdraw from the council this year put the organisation in a bind. Moscow has not done anything to change its behaviour, in Crimea or in the rest of Ukraine, since the sanction was adopted. A clutch of member states, led by Ukraine but including Britain and several eastern European capitals, strenuously opposed what they saw as a capitulation to Russia's threat. What moral stature could the council claim – and its power is, after all, more moral more than legal or political – if they were to take such a nakedly unprincipled decision. Some critics of Russia's return suggested money was an unspoken factor. Russia's €33 million annual contribution makes it one of the council's biggest funders; losing that income would take a big chunk out of the organisation's budget.

The campaign for Russia's readmission was led by France and Germany. For them, it was better to have Russia in than out. They argued that it would be ordinary Russian citizens, rather than the Kremlin, that would pay the heaviest price if Russia left the club. As the country's democratic system has frayed, they said, the European Court of Human Rights has become a vital lifeline for Russians seeking to vindicate their rights. Since 1996, some 2,500 judgments have been delivered to Russia, and although its implementation of decisions has been patchy in recent years, in 2017 alone it paid out more than €14.5 million to citizens who had won cases against it. The Franco-German camp pointed out that council membership has acted as an important constraint: for example, Russia has adhered to the death penalty moratorium it had to impose as a condition of accession in 1996.

Readmitting Russia

When the question of readmitting Russia came to a vote in the parliamentary assembly on Tuesday, the Franco-German proposal passed by 118 to 62 with 10 abstentions. Of Ireland's four representatives, the only one who was present – Senator Paul Gavan of Sinn Féin – voted in favour. When the assembly voted two days later to ratify the credentials of the Russian delegation, two other Irish members – Senators Joe O'Reilly and Maura Hopkins of Fine Gael – voted in favour, while Fianna Fáil TD Robert Troy abstained.

Asked for the Government's position, the Department of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that assembly decisions did not necessarily reflect national governments' policies, but it did not state outright what the Government's position was. The statement said Ireland had sought a solution "which respects the values and principles" of the institution. It added: "It is important that the Russian people continue to enjoy the protection of the European Court of Human Rights. The Council of Europe is an organisation where Russia, like all members states, can be held to account by the international community and where dialogue can be pursued in a structured forum."

Some of the consequences of this week’s decision were immediate. Russia applauded it. The Ukrainian delegation walked out in protest. But the real fallout will take longer to assess. Is this a precedent for the lifting of wider European economic sanctions imposed on Russia after the annexation of Crimea? Has the post-Skripal united front on Russia between London and Dublin begun to fray? And, in trying to keep its increasingly fractious club intact, has the Council of Europe stretched itself to breaking point?