Europe's human rights watchdog starts to bite

The Secretary-General of the Council of Europe tells Tony Barber in Salonika why ex-Communist states want to join

Even supporters of the Council of Europe would admit that many people, particularly in western Europe, have never heard of it, or have only a hazy idea of what it does. Yet almost 50 years after its foundation in 1949, the Strasbourg-based institution, whose task is the promotion of human rights and democracy across Europe, is acquiring more weight than perhaps at any time in its history.

One could even say it is becoming somewhat controversial. This was underlined at a recent meeting in Salonika, when members of the council's parliamentary assembly took the virtually unprecedented step of warning an applicant country, Croatia, to improve its human rights performance if it wanted full membership.

"Our main objective is to promote the core values of pluralist democracy," the council's Secretary-General, Daniel Tarschys of Sweden, told the Independent. "There must be certain minimal conditions to be fulfilled. We can't just take in any country."

Not much was heard of the council from 1949 to 1989, during which time its membership was confined to Western European countries. Its role in the Cold War was mainly to demonstrate how these states had embraced freedoms denied to the Soviet-controlled countries of the East.

Since the fall of Communism, however, the number of member-states has risen from 23 to 39 as new democracies in Central and Eastern Europe have flocked to join. Clearly, these states believe that membership matters, perhaps because it is taking them so long to achieve the bigger prizes of entry into the European Union and Nato.

Mr Tarschys, a former professor of Soviet and East European studies at Uppsala University, said Council of Europe membership was important to a Central or Eastern European state. It served as proof that the state was considered democratic; it showed the country was binding itself into free European institutions; and finally, for some new-born states such as Moldova, or the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, it underlined European acceptance of their independence.

Notwithstanding the recent warning to Croatia, the Council of Europe attracts criticisms from politicians and commentators who say it has turned a blind eye to some countries' failings in order to expand its membership as fast as possible. The most obvious example concerns Russia, which was admitted early this year despite widespread concern over the war in Chechnya and the quality of Russia's political and legal systems.

Another example involved Romania in 1993, when Hungary argued for delaying Romanian membership on the grounds that Bucharest was still discriminating against the country's ethnic Hungarian minority. In the end, Hungary abstained in the vote, allowing Romania to join.

Significantly, when the vote on Russia was coming up, President Boris Yeltsin publicly warned rejection of the application would damage Russian relations with the West. It was a sign of how seriously Moscow took membership of the council, an institution denounced in Communist times as a vehicle for Western propaganda.

Mr Tarschys acknowledges that some states, especially those with "an interrupted democratic tradition", such as the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, presented the council with few problems when they applied to join. "As we came further to the east, there were more doubts as to whether some countries were ready for membership. I pleaded for an inclusive strategy," he said.

The "better-in-than-out" argument rests not only on the assumption that it is easier to influence a country's behaviour when it belongs to the council. It reflects the view, put by Mr Tarschys, that the council's activities are "not just a finger-pointing exercise" but are intended to encourage reform.

A variety of new programmes are in place to help strengthen democratic institutions and the rule of law in Eastern Europe. One is a Council of Europe Youth Centre in Budapest, where young Europeans exchange ideas about human rights, political extremism, unemployment and other issues.

The council is also involved in the post-war reconstruction of Bosnia, for under the Dayton agreement the council was asked to help set up a Bosnian human rights commission and a constitutional court. A sign of the council's growing importance is that the United States, Japan and Canada have all recently requested, and been granted, observer status.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
sportSo, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Arts and Entertainment
Dennis speaks to his French teacher
tvThe Boy in the Dress, TV review
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
The Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia was one of the 300 US cinemas screening
filmTim Walker settles down to watch the controversial gross-out satire
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
Life and Style
Mark's crab tarts are just the right size
food + drinkMark Hix cooks up some snacks that pack a punch
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect