In the Company of Wolves
On Thursday the council's presidency will pass to Serbia. Serbia is not the only nation in Europe involved in human rights abuses. But it is distinguished by the fact that its failures are uncontroversial. Everyone from Human Rights Watch to President Bush has urged its government to hand over Ratko Mladic - the general responsible for the Sarajevo massacre - to the tribunal in the Hague. To decide that this country is unfit to run the Council of Europe looks uncomplicated and free from political cost. If European countries can't find the courage to act against Serbia, they can't find the courage to act against anyone. Human rights become a dead letter.
The Council of Europe is a body quite separate from the European Union. Proposed by Winston Churchill, it was founded in 1949 for "the pursuit of peace based upon justice"(1). It drew up the human rights convention and runs the European Court of Human Rights. It has an annual budget of E197m and 46 members. Among them is every state in Europe except Montenegro and Belarus. The exclusion of Belarus is perhaps the only difficult decision it has ever taken.
The member states, which are supposed to support the court's decisions, look the other way. Even when the Council of Europe's own delegation in Chechnya was blown up by a bomb in 2003, the member governments failed to act. As a result the Russian government has yet to carry out a proper investigation(3). A little of the council's credibility trickles away with every evasion.
No one would suggest that either Russia or Serbia would suddenly become a paragon of restraint if it were censured by the Council of Europe. Serbia has shown it is prepared to pay an extraordinary price for sheltering Ratko Mladic. It has already forfeited accession talks with Europe, its confederation with Montenegro and hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign aid for the sake of its pet monster. But the council's refusal to condemn Serbia, or even to prevent it from taking the chair, strengthens the position of the nationalists who argue that Mladic need not be surrendered.
But who will cast the first stone? There is scarcely a government in Europe which does not have something to hide. The UK, Germany, Italy, Macedonia and even Sweden have been assisting the CIA's programme of "extraordinary rendition": kidnapping people and delivering them to states which will torture them on America's behalf(7). Poland and Romania appear to have allowed the US to use secret detention centres on their soil to process them. Austria, Germany and the UK rely on worthless diplomatic assurances to justify handing refugees to governments which torture their prisoners(8). Poland warns that "teachers who reveal their homosexuality will be fired from work"(9).
When I discussed these matters with Terry Davis, he admitted that he had "not heard anyone in the Council of Europe suggest any form of action against Serbia as a result of its failure to hand over Mladic."(12) The only action they could take, he claimed, is to expel Serbia from the council: once you have become a member, you have the right to chair it when your turn comes up. I am not convinced this is true. The council's statute says that a member which has seriously violated human rights and fundamental freedoms "may be suspended from its rights of representation"(13). Surely this could apply to its right to be represented as chairman of the council?
If you want to know the value of an institution, you need only imagine what the world would be like if it didn't exist. If the Council of Europe were dissolved, would anyone suffer, except for the people it employs? The European Court would be missed. But the rest of it? Thanks to the member states' agreement to ignore each other's abuses, it is, at the moment, completely useless.
2. Philip Leach, 9th February 2006. Russia should be held to account over human rights abuses. The Guardian.
4. Terry Davis, 25th May 2006. Russia deserves to lead the Council of Europe Human rights. International Herald Tribune.
6. Olli Rehn, 6th March 2007. Statement at meeting of EU General Affairs And External Relations Council. http://ue.eu.int/uedocs/cms_data/docs/media/GAERCTroikaUE-Serbie06032007/EN.mp3
8. Human Rights Watch, January 2007. Cases Involving Diplomatic Assurances against Torture: Developments since May 2005. http://www.hrw.org/backgrounder/eca/eu0107/index.htm
10. Human Rights Watch, 2nd April 2007. Spain/Morocco: Repatriation Accord Fails to Protect Children. http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/04/02/spain15628.htm
13. Statute of the Council of Europe, 5th May 1949. Article 8. http://conventions.coe.int/Treaty/EN/Treaties/Html/001.htm
Published in the Guardian 8th May 2007.