Prague, 6 December 1996 (RFE/RL) - Well-informed Council of Europe officials say that Ukraine and Russia will face severe sanctions next year from the organization if they do not end capital punishment in their countries within the next several months. The two countries both pledged to stop executions when they became members of the 40-state Council last year.
In telephone interviews with our correspondent, Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly members Zsolt Nemeth of Hungary and Renate Wohlwend of Liechtenstein said that the Assembly would probably issue what they called a "strong warning" to Ukraine and Russia at its winter session in Strasbourg late next month. If the warning was not heeded by the Assembly's next scheduled session in late April, initial sanctions could be imposed soon after.
The first sanctions step, the two parliamentarians said, would be to suspend the credentials of both nations' delegations to the Assembly, thereby temporarily barring them from the body. A second, more severe sanction could entail permanent expulsion from the Assembly and a recommendation to Council member states that the two countries' membership in the entire organization be suspended or even revoked. Recommendations by the Assembly, made up of nationally-elected parliamentarians, are seldom ignored or countermanded by Council member states.
Nemeth and Wolhwend are officials of the Assembly's Legal Affairs and Human Rights Committee who deal, respectively, with questions involving Ukraine and capital punishment. They helped organize and, along with some 15 other committee members, attended last week's two-day international seminar in Kyiv on the abolition of the death penalty, sponsored jointly by the Council and Ukraine's Justice Ministry.
At that meeting, it was revealed by Ukrainian officials that at least 89 secret executions had taken place in the country in the first six months of this year and probably 50 to 100 more since then. Russian officials said that at least 86 executions took place in their country in 1995, and more than 50 since the beginning of this year. Speaking to RFE/RL today, Wolhwend said that the true figures for both countries was more likely "in the hundreds."
Russia became a member of the Council in February 1996, Ukraine 10 months later. Before joining, both nations solemnly promised to introduce an immediate moratorium on executions and legally abolish the death penalty within three years.
The European Convention on Human Rights, one of the Council's most important documents, provides for the abolition of the death penalty in peacetime. Both Ukraine and Russia signed the convention when they became Council members. In addition, the Parliamentary Assembly resolved five months ago that any state joining the Council must cease executions immediately and indicate its willingness to abolish the death penalty.
To toughen its surveillance of promises made by recently admitted Council member states from the East, the Parliamentary Assembly is due to establish a special monitoring committee at its January session. The committee will have the power to recommend sanctions against new members that have not fulfilled engagements taken when they joined the Council.
In Kyiv last week, both Nemeth and Wohlwend publicly warned Russia and Ukraine that persistent breaches of their solemn undertakings would have what they called "inevitable consequences" on the countries' future in the Council of Europe. Both also paid tribute to the "courage" of those combating the death penalty in the nations of Central and Eastern Europe. In addition to Russia and Ukraine, 14 other states from the area are now Council members.
In their remarks to our correspondent, Nemeth and Wohlwend praised Ukraine's Justice Minister, Serhiy Holovaty for his honesty and integrity. They said that Holovaty, a former Parliamentary Assembly member, was one of the country's few high officials genuinely seeking to end capital punishment.
Holovaty opened the Kyiv meeting by telling participants that "enforcement of the death penalty is incompatible with the objective of building post-communist societies on the basis of rule of law and fundamental justice." But he also said that "in today's Ukraine, outright abolition of the death penalty would not be a popular measure (because many citizens see capital punishment) as an expeditious and effective method of restoring social order and curing society's ills."
On Monday, citing Nemeth's remarks to the Kyiv meeting, the London-based human-rights group Amnesty International urgently appealed to Ukrainian authorities to stop all executions. It called the figures revealed in Kyiv "shocking information...only China is known to have executed more prisoners this year," Amnesty International said.