A Review of the Compliance of the Russian Federation with Council of Europe Commitments and Other Human Rights Obligations on the First Anniversary of Its Accession to the Council of Europe

February 1997, Vol. 9, No. 3 (D)



On February 28, 1996, the Russian Federation became a full member of the Council of Europe, an intergovernmental organization based in Strasbourg, France, which, among other goals, aims to protect human rights. Accession to the Council of Europe heightened expectations that the Russian Federation would take concrete steps to improve its poor human rights record in the year that has followed. However, on the first anniversary of its accession to the Council of Europe, it is clear that the Russian Federation has made little progress in fulfilling its new obligations and indeed, in some cases, has flagrantly violated them. It continued to perpetrate attacks on civilians and other violations of international humanitarian law in Chechnya through August 1996, when the Khasavyurt agreement ended twenty months of war in Chechnya. It continued through August 1996 to execute prisoners condemned to death, in violation of its obligation to institute a death penalty moratorium from the day of its accession to the Council of Europe. It failed to ratify within a year of accession several significant human rights conventions and protocols and generally failed to translate legislative reform into practice in addressing long-standing abuses such as appalling and even “torturous” prison conditions, police brutality, freedom of movement, deprivation of the rights of refugees, and discrimination on the basis of ethnicity and gender. Responsibility for human rights violations and for failing to uphold its commitments and obligations as a member of the Council of Europe lies squarely on the shoulders of the government of the Russian Federation. However, Human Rights Watch/Helsinki is also concerned that the Council of Europe has not used its maximum influence to secure human rights improvements in the Russian Federation, one of its newest member states, and in some cases has accepted pledges of reform in lieu of actual reform where such trust was clearly not warranted.

Accession has prompted the Russian government to take some promising steps to improve its human rights record, for which both the Russian government and the Council of Europe can rightfully take credit. Indeed, in some cases, the Russian parliament agreed to uphold some human rights obligations only when the Council of Europe insisted on them, although these same obligations were already mandated in domestic legislation. Human Rights Watch/Helsinki appreciates these efforts by the Russian government and the resources and expert attention the Council of Europe has devoted to evaluating Russia’s human rights record and pushing for compliance. Among other sustained and coordinated efforts, the Council of Europe monitors and investigates abuse, condemns serious violations where they have persisted, crafts recommendations for compliance, shares human rights expertise with counterparts in Russia, supports nongovernmental organizations in the field of human rights in Russia, and engages the Russian government in implementing required improvements.

At the same time, the Council of Europe offered the Russian Federation membership before adequate guarantees for improvement on some issues were secured, and in some cases failed adequately to censure and impose sanctions against its new member as soon as flagrant non-compliance became apparent. The Council of Europe failed to condemn and take action to combat abuse it was well aware of, in some cases in contradiction to the findings of its own experts. The most obvious example of this is that no public threats of action are known to have been made by the Council of Europe even when the Russian government continued to carry out executions at least through August 2, 1996, fully six months after it had committed to instituting a de jure moratorium. (Russian authorities assert that a de facto moratorium has been in place since August 1996, but as of this writing has still not instituted one de jure.)

As a rule, Human Rights Watch/Helsinki is concerned by the degree to which the Council of Europe’s human rights admission requirements are negotiable, rather than standardized, leaving the process vulnerable to political, security, and other considerations which can obscure human rights goals. This in turn belittles the primacy of respect for human rights. As a broader issue, we are also concerned because the Council of Europe’s failure to secure and enforce adequate yardsticks of reform prior to offering membership weakens the Council of Europe’s perceived commitment to its fundamental principles of democracy and respect for human rights; this, in turn, sends a message to member nations and applicant states alike that the Council of Europe is sometimes willing to turn a blind eye to abuse. Evidence of this dangerous trend is that, in violation of their accession obligations, fully one-fifth of the Council of Europe’s membership have still not instituted a de jure death penalty moratorium. In general, we believe that the Council of Europe’s influence is often squandered because it emphasizes achieving compliance after accession, rather than as a precondition to it.

While appreciating the difficulties faced by the Russian government in rapidly bringing its human rights practices into full compliance with European standards, we are distressed by the slowness of the reform and by serious backsliding in some areas. At the same time, we are hopeful that the Russian Federation will be able to meet its human rights obligations more rapidly through encouragement and intense pressure. We believe that much of the serious and widespread human rights abuses that persist in the Russian Federation and in other Council of Europe member states can and should be redressed with greater insistence from the Council of Europe.

Human Rights Watch/Helsinki takes the opportunity of the anniversary of Russia’s accession to the Council of Europe to assess the Russian government’s progress toward ending the most severe human rights abuses and to make specific recommendations for achieving more rapid compliance with its international human rights obligations. Human Rights Watch/Helsinki further takes this opportunity to evaluate the Council of Europe’s success at achieving its own human rights agenda and suggests steps to more effectively exert its influence with the Russian authorities to achieve measurable human rights improvements. This report therefore seeks to identify areas in which the Russian Federation is falling short of, or actively flouting, its human rights commitments as a member of the Council of Europe, as well as those enshrined in domestic Russian or international human rights and humanitarian law.

The documentation presented in this report primarily reflects the findings of investigations conducted by Human Rights Watch and refers to conclusions made by other human rights organizations. It is not intended to be comprehensive of all of the human rights violations currently carried out or insufficiently addressed by the Russian government. We also note that the Council of Europe is seeking Russia’s compliance with military, security, law enforcement, political, ecological, and cultural issues that fall outside Human Rights Watch’s mandate and which therefore will not be treated here (see Appendix A).

We recognize that the causes of some violations currently committed by the Russian government are sufficiently complex that they may require more than a single year to be fully corrected, and we welcome efforts by the Council of Europe, other intergovernmental bodies, individual governments, and nongovernmental organizations to encourage and rigorously to monitor Russia’s efforts to comply with longer-term goals for improvement. However, a year is clearly enough time for Russia to take some basic steps, such as instituting a legally binding death penalty moratorium, ratifying fundamental human rights instruments on the Council of Europe’s recommendations, and beginning serious efforts to prosecute crimes such as the murder of civilians by its armed forces. We urge the Council of Europe to press for these urgently needed reforms and to back its demands with credible threats of suspension of membership privileges and rights, in accordance with Parliamentary Assembly Order No. 508 (1995); Human Rights Watch/Helsinki welcomes efforts to date to do so. We hope that a documented enumeration of major areas of human rights concern will aid in this process.



Human Rights Watch/Helsinki respectfully urges the government and parliament of the Russian Federation:

To comply with the human rights obligations required of Council of Europe member states in accordance with the timetable set out by the Council of Europe. As an urgent priority, we urge the Russian Government and the parliament to:

institute immediately a legally binding moratorium on the death penalty and launch a high-profile public information campaign to insure that all prison authorities and prisoners are aware of and honor its enactment;

ratify the European Convention on Human Rights and its Protocols, the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment;

the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and comply with their provisions;

repeal the remaining capital punishment provisions from the criminal code of the Russian Federation;

and fulfill its obligation detailed in the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly Opinion No. 193 (1996), point 7 (vii): “those found responsible for human rights violations will be brought to justice notably in relation to events in Chechnya” by reinvigorating the process of investigating and prosecuting, in full compliance with international law, those responsible for gross violations of international humanitarian law, especially indiscriminate shelling, targeting civilians, torture, and using civilians as human shields.

We also respectfully urge the Russian Federation to:

cooperate fully with the Chechnya Procuracy in order to investigate and prosecute the 342 cases of crimes allegedly committed throughout the war by Russian soldiers compiled by the Chechnya Procuracy, as documented by Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, and include the Chechnya Procuracy in the investigation of these and other cases;

cooperate with family members and local authorities who are seeking to locate Chechens held in custody for their alleged participation in rebel activities by, among other things, indicating on lists of Chechens in custody the exact dates of arrest, charges against them, and convictions;

immediately cease torture and other forms of mistreatment of individuals in places of detention, and ensure that the Procuracy General rigorously prosecute and punish those responsible for these crimes, in conformity with international standards;

immediately repeal all legislative acts that violate freedom of movement in conformity with international standards and investigate reports of such violations;

revise any legislative acts that discriminate on the basis of ethnicity, national identity, or gender, and enforce protections against discrimination in all forms rigorously;

and make public a detailed, country-wide report of those law enforcement officials who have been disciplined or held criminally accountable for due process violations and physical abuse of detainees. Such a report should include information about the kind of violation the law officer was found guilty of, the sanctions imposed, and the damage suffered by the victim and whether and how the victim was compensated for damages.

Human Rights Watch/Helsinki respectfully urges the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly to:

ensure that the Russian government fulfils all other obligations to the Council of Europe promptly, or immediately institute punitive proceedings in accordance with its Statute and Parliamentary Assembly resolutions.

As a means of deterring non-compliance with Council of Europe human rights obligations, we urge it to develop and adopt as soon as possible uniform mechanisms for imposing sanctions on the violator nation immediately, rather than at the beginning of each part-session;

reprimand the Russian government for failing to honor the timetable set forth for ratification of certain human rights instruments by February 28, 1997, and ensure that it honors these obligations as soon as possible;

ensure that the Russian parliament repeal all remaining capital punishment provisions in its criminal code on a priority basis, and in the meantime cease immediately handing down death penalty sentences.

Immediately upon ratification of the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the Committee to Prevent Torture (CPT) should, as a matter of priority, send a delegation to conduct a comprehensive investigation into conditions in prisons, pre-trial detention facilities and police lock-ups in the Russian Federation, and, should the Russian government fail to comply with recommendations submitted upon conclusion of the investigation, the CPT should, in accordance with its mandate, release a public report on its findings and recommendations for remedying problems there, and work with the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the government of the Russian Federation to implement these recommendations as soon as possible.

The Council of Europe should, further:

request its ad hoc committee on Chechnya to conduct an investigation into acts of state-sponsored racist violence in Chechnya and, to the degree they existed, in other parts of the Russian Federation that could be perceived as an extension or result of the armed conflict, and report back publicly with its findings and recommendations;

and set feasible deadlines for legal changes to be adopted by member states and, if those deadlines are not met, institute immediate punitive measures.






Death Penalty

Violations of International Humanitarian Law: Chechnya Torture and Other Forms of Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment The Penal System

Violation of Freedom of Movement

Violations of the Rights of Refugees, Internally Displaced Persons, and Migrants State-Sponsored Discrimination



Excerpts from Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly Opinion No. 193 (1996) on Russia’s Request for Membership of the Council of Europe

Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly Order No. 508 (1995) on the Honouring of Obligations and Commitments by Member States of the Council of Europe

Letter from Human Rights Watch/Helsinki to Council of Europe regarding Russia’s Noncompliance with Death Penalty Moratorium Obligations


Human Rights Watch      February 1997      Vol. 9, No. 3 (D)

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