MOSCOW (AP) — The Council of Europe, the continent’s main human rights body, adopted a declaration Friday that restores Russia’s voting rights following a spat related to its annexation of the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.
Foreign ministers from the council’s 47 member states voted overwhelmingly to support a declaration that says that all members should be “entitled to participate” in the council’s two main organs “on an equal basis.” That means Russia’s voting rights have been restored.
The council, which is based in Strasbourg, France and is open to all European countries regardless of whether they are in the European Union or not, suspended Russia’s voting rights after the annexation of Crimea, a move that Ukraine and most of the world views as illegal. Russia, a member since 1996, then stopped paying its membership fees in protest.
Senior Russian officials have threatened to pull out of the Council of Europe altogether. Such a move would mean that ordinary Russians would lose access to the European Court of Human Rights, which has become an important tool for those who have lost faith in Russian courts.
Ministers are meeting in Finland, but Ukraine’s foreign minister on Thursday unexpectedly canceled his attendance, a sign that Ukraine is expecting Russia’s reinstatement.
Ukraine’s envoy to the Council on Europe Dmytro Kuleba said in a tweet that Ukraine and five other countries voted against the motion which he described as a result of “cynical diplomacy” to save a “long-term partner.”
France — which will take over the rotating presidency at the council on Friday — and Germany have been vocal about the need to bring Russia back in the fold for the benefit of millions of ordinary Russians.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who is meeting his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov later in the day, said before the meeting that “it is not in our interests” to keep Russia out.
“Russia belongs in the Council of Europe — with all of the rights and responsibilities that go with it,” Maas said, adding that he hopes to be able to take a “decisive step forward” at the ministerial meeting.
French President Emmanuel Macron told the Council of Europe president earlier this month that “the Council of Europe needs Russia like Russia and the Russians need the Council of Europe, which means that their rights as a member state are respected but also that Russia fulfills its obligations towards the institution.”
Russia’s exit from the Council of Europe would mean that Russians wouldn’t be able to turn to the European Court of Human Rights as the last point of appeal for criminal proceedings in Russia. The ECHR over the years has become an important tool of legal redress for Russians who are often unable to find justice in Russia’s notoriously corrupt and government-dependent court system.
More than 20 percent of all cases heard at the ECHR last year came from Russian nationals, according to the court’s annual report.
Angela Charlton in Paris and David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.