As evidence of atrocities by Russia in Ukraine mounts, President Volodymyr Zelensky and other international leaders are accusing Russia of violating international law and disregarding Ukrainians’ human rights. The U.N. General Assembly voted in April 2022 to suspend Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council, citing systematic rights violations.
Russia was expelled in March from another human rights body — the Council of Europe, Europe’s largest intergovernmental organization. The decision, aimed at further isolating President Vladimir Putin’s government, means Ukrainian and Russian citizens can no longer appeal to the organization for redress for continuing abuses. Here’s why.
What is the Council of Europe?
The Council of Europe, now with 46 member states, was founded in 1949 to promote human rights, democracy and rule of law in Europe after World War II. Its founding document is the Statute of the Council of Europe, and its hallmark treaty is the European Convention on Human Rights. Russia joined in 1996.
Several bodies make up the council, including the Committee of Ministers, the main decision-making body, composed of member countries’ foreign ministers. The Parliamentary Assembly includes legislators from each member country. And the European Court of Human Rights enforces compliance with the convention.
Why was Russia kicked out?
On Feb. 25, 2022, the Committee of Ministers temporarily suspended Russia’s rights of representation within the council. While suspended, Russia still had to uphold its obligations as a council member, including respecting human rights.
But evidence grew of Russian forces shelling residential areas. Targeting civilians would constitute a violation of Ukrainians’ right to life under Article 2 of the convention. In response, on Feb. 28, Ukraine pressed the European Court of Human Rights for urgent intervention. The court ordered Russia to cease attacks on civilians and civilian targets such as residential areas, schools and hospitals. Russia ignored the court.
On March 15 — amid debate in the Parliamentary Assembly about Russia’s behavior — Russia announced that it would leave the council. It was only the second country in history that had sought to leave. The first was Greece, following a 1967 coup, but Greece later rejoined the council when the military government fell in 1974.
Within hours of Russia’s announcement, the assembly condemned Russian aggression, citing several breaches of international law in Ukraine. The next day, March 16, the Committee of Ministers declared Russia excluded from the organization.
The ministers condemned the atrocities Russia had allegedly committed in Ukraine — and declared that aggression against a sovereign nation is “incompatible” with council membership.
What is the significance of Russia’s expulsion?
Kicking Russia out may not be compatible with the council’s core objectives, however. The move closes avenues for accountability, both now and in the longer term.
Timing matters in international law. Russia’s planned voluntary exit would have taken effect on Dec. 31, as defined in Article 7 of the statute. But the council expelled Russia on March 16, in line with Article 8. A March 22 resolution by the European Court of Human Rights declared and another by the Committee of Ministers on March 23 confirmed Russia’s removal as a party to the European Convention on Human Rights as of Sept. 16
That means the European Court of Human Rights cannot challenge any violations of the European Convention on Human Rights by Russia after September 16. Without the expulsion, Russia would have had three more months on the council, during which it would have been subject to the court. This would have given Ukrainians and Russians alike further opportunities to lodge human rights complaints against Putin’s government.
The European Court of Human Rights rules on violations of the convention
The convention enumerates several human rights, including the right to life, liberty and security. The treaty also prohibits torture, arbitrary detention, deportation and other abuses Russia is accused of committing in Ukraine.
The court has the power — and often exercises it — to order monetary compensation for victims. The court’s judgments are binding and are enforced by the Committee of Ministers. While not all cases are ultimately enforced, many are. Russia has sometimes in the past refused to pay but has compensated some victims. Acknowledgment of harm by the court is also a significant symbolic action.
The court has lost jurisdiction over claims against Russia
If Russia’s voluntary withdrawal had taken effect, the court would have lost jurisdiction only over violations committed after Dec. 31. Human rights defenders argue that Russia’s March 16 removal by the council is a significant setback for international accountability.
Specifically, ordinary Russians won’t be able to access the court for justice in any future cases involving their government. This is regrettable, as claims by Russian citizens against Putin’s government constituted a large share of the court’s past caseload. Likewise, Ukrainians — and others in Europe — can seek accountability at the court only for offenses committed by Russian personnel before September 16.
What happens now?
Of course, the European Court of Human Rights isn’t the only international court that can try to hold Russia accountable. On March 16, the International Court of Justice ordered Russia to halt military operations in Ukraine. The International Criminal Court is also investigating alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide by Russia in Ukraine.
The Council of Europe reaffirmed its support for these courts in a March 15 opinion. Still, the council’s decision to remove Russia closed many doors to accountability.
There’s little doubt that Russia is becoming a pariah state. The Kremlin is unwilling to engage with international courts, first challenging the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court, and then rejecting orders from the International Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights.
These moves led to Russia’s removal from the U.N. Human Rights Council on April 7. Nonetheless, the U.N. body can continue investigating Russian abuses in Ukraine because Russia remains a U.N. member.
As Moscow appears to burn bridges with the international community, Kyiv has appealed to international institutions to protect human rights and Ukrainian sovereignty. Perhaps this contrast will fortify global solidarity with Ukraine, in this second month of the war and beyond.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights over Russia ended on March 16. The story has been corrected to note that this will take effect as of September 16. We regret the error.
Kelebogile Zvobgo (@kelly_zvobgo) is an assistant professor of government at William & Mary, a faculty affiliate at the Global Research Institute, and the founder and director of the International Justice Lab.
Note: Updated Oct. 2, 2023.