What would it take to disqualify a nation from running Europe's official human rights organisation? Persecuting gays? Not a hope. Torturing and murdering political opponents? Forget about it. Waging an illegal war? You must be joking. The Council of Europe doesn't seem to care who speaks on its behalf.
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 Srebrenica 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.
But there is something odd about the howls of outrage provoked by Serbia's impending presidency: there aren't any. Its accession, which mocks everything the council claims to stand for, has been greeted by a shuffling silence. This is why: as soon as European countries start criticising another member, they invite examination of their own records on human rights when it is their turn to take the chair. For fear of what might be found there, they have tacitly agreed to ignore each other's abuses.
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 Ã¢â€šÂ¬197m 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.
Observe its perpetual cowardice in dealing with Russia. The European court of human rights has repeatedly ruled against Russia's abuses in Chechnya. Russia's response has been to pretend to abide by its decisions — handing out a few roubles in compensation, for example — while protecting and promoting the people responsible for the torture and kidnappings and killings. That is one response. The other is to beat or kill the complainants. In May 2003, for example, armed men broke into the house of Zura Bitieva, who had applied to the court over her illegal detention and torture, and shot her and three members of her family(2). Case closed.
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.
But neither the foreign ministers who run the Council of Europe nor its secretariat appear to mind. Last year, when it was Russia's turn to chair the council, the secretary-general, who is the former British Labour MP Terry Davis, argued that the fuss about Chechnya was the result of the scapegoating of eastern European nations by the West, and suggested that Russia had a credible "plan of action aimed at preventing similar human rights violations in the future"(4). This was nonsense. It is not clear why Mr Davis seems to believe that his duties include belittling his members' crimes against humanity.
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. They suspect that the other European nations, anxious to develop trade links and expand the EU, will find it convenient to forget that he exists. Last year NATO dropped its requirement that he be arrested and handed over before Serbia could join its "partnership for peace" programme(5). In March Olli Rehn, the EU's enlargement commissioner, suggested that negotiations might recommence, despite Mladic(6). On Thursday, when the Serbian government becomes the official defender of human rights in Europe, the people who regard Ratko Mladic as a national hero will feel quietly vindicated.
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). France supports African genocidaires. Spain repatriates unaccompanied children(10). Ukrainian police torture sex workers and force them to confess to crimes they did not commit(11). The United Kingdom bans peaceful protest and continues to occupy the country it illegally invaded. Lift a stone to throw at Serbia anywhere in Europe and you will find something unpleasant cowering there. Better to leave it on the ground. The price of being left alone by other states is the tolerance of mass murder.
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?
Mr Davis ingeniously argued that Serbia's visibility in its new role will expose it to embarrasment. Would I have been writing about Mladic if it were not about to assume the chair? I wouldn't. But on the same grounds you could argue that Robert Mugabe should become the next head of Amnesty International, to teach him a lesson he would never forget.
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.
1. Preamble to the Statute of the Council of Europe, 5th May 1949. http://conventions.coe.int/Treaty/EN/Treaties/Html/001.htm
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2. Philip Leach, 9th February 2006. Russia should be held to account over human rights abuses. The Guardian.
3. Rudolf Bindig, 21st December 2005. Human rights violations in the Chechen Republic: the Committee of Ministers' responsibility vis-ÃƒÂ -vis the Assembly's concerns. Doc. 10774. Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights, Consultative Assembly to the Council of Europe.
4. Terry Davis, 25th May 2006. Russia deserves to lead the Council of Europe Human rights. International Herald Tribune.
5. Jonathan Steele, 26th January 2007. Delay in recognising Kosovo will invite more bloodshed. The Guardian.
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
7. Human Rights Watch, 21st February 2006. Pending Questions on CIA Activities in Europe. http://hrw.org/english/docs/2006/02/21/eu13032.htm
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
9. Miroslaw Orzechowski, Education Minister, 15th March 2007. Quoted by Human Rights Watch, 19th March 2007. Letter to Polish Prime Minister about Censorship in Schools. http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/03/16/poland15511.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
11. Human Rights Watch, 19th April 2007. Committee against Torture Review of Ukraine.
12. Terry Davis, pers comm, 27th April 2007.
13. Statute of the Council of Europe, 5th May 1949. Article 8. http://conventions.coe.int/Treaty/EN/Treaties/Html/001.htm
© 2007 George Monbiot