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Is PACE A Paper Tiger?

  • Liz Fuller

Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian (right) meets with PACE President Luis Maria de Puig in Yerevan in July 2008.

Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian (right) meets with PACE President Luis Maria de Puig in Yerevan in July 2008.

At its winter session two weeks ago, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) adopted two separate, controversial resolutions: the first on the Russian-Georgian conflict of August 2008 and the second on the violent aftermath of the disputed February 2008 Armenian presidential ballot.

While the first of those resolutions epitomizes PACE's unswerving commitment to the principle of territorial integrity, the second highlights its limitations in addressing the failure by Council of Europe member states fully to comply with and implement their commitment to democratic governance and the protection of human rights.

The resolution on the war in South Ossetia was a follow-up to, and assessed compliance by all parties with, an earlier PACE resolution of October 2 described as "a transparent, impartial, and concrete roadmap to address the consequences of the war." The follow-up resolution welcomed the support expressed by both Russia and Georgia for the EU's international investigation into the origins and course of the fighting, and encouraged all parties to "pursue in a constructive spirit" the periodic Geneva talks on security and stability in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

'At Odds With International Law'

In wording that was widely hailed in Tbilisi as a moral victory, it again condemned as a violation of international law Russia's recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states; reaffirmed support for Georgia's territorial integrity; deplored the refusal by Russia, Abkhaz, and South Ossetian authorities to allow OSCE and EU monitors to enter the territory of the two breakaway republics; and condemned Russia's plans for military bases there.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that PACE has become the hostage of a paradigm it adopted in good faith...
At the same time, the resolution expressed concern that some "provisions in the Georgian law on occupied territories may be at odds with principles of international law."

The second resolution focused, for the third time, on the political situation in Armenia, evaluating specifically the Armenian authorities' compliance with demands contained in two earlier resolutions (adopted on April 17 and June 25, 2008) intended to defuse political tensions in the wake of the post-presidential election violence in Yerevan on March 1-2.

Those measures included releasing seven prominent supporters of defeated opposition presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrossian who were arrested in the wake of the clashes and charged with plotting to overthrow the government, charges which PACE has suggested were unfounded and politically motivated; and the launch of an independent inquiry into the violence, which caused the deaths of 10 people.

The Armenian government has indeed set up an independent investigative body, but the seven oppositionists have not been released; on the contrary, their trial opened in mid-December.

Rap On The Knuckles

Some factions within the Armenian opposition had anticipated, indeed hoped, that PACE would rap the authorities harshly on the knuckles by unequivocally condemning the measures adopted to date as inadequate, or even retaliate by temporarily stripping Armenia of its voting rights. But while the most recent resolution expressed "dissatisfaction" and "regret" that the Armenian authorities made "only limited progress," it took into account both the pardons granted to 28 people jailed for their purported participation in the violence, and key last-minute concessions that may have been adopted solely, and specifically, to avoid the humiliation of temporarily being deprived of voting rights.

A session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE)
The PACE resolution termed parliament speaker Hovik Abrahamian's proposal to establish a working group to amend the articles of the Criminal Code under which the seven men are charged a "belated," but "welcome," indication that the Armenian authorities take PACE's concerns seriously, and extended the deadline for compliance with the outstanding demands.

Some members of Ter-Petrossian's Armenian National Congress criticized PACE both for modifying the original wording of the resolution -- and specifically for failing to designate the seven opposition figures as "political prisoners" -- and for not imposing punitive sanctions. But to have disciplined Armenia in this way would have laid PACE open to charges of double standards, given that no such penalty was meted out to Azerbaijan in the wake of its disputed presidential ballot in October 2003.

On that occasion too, police intervened violently to disperse opposition supporters protesting the perceived falsification of the election outcome, and arrested and subjected to physical violence seven prominent opposition politicians who were subsequently brought to trial and sentenced to prison terms up of to five years, but pardoned in summer 2005.

Also, PACE similarly failed to strip the Armenian delegation of its voting rights either in the wake of the flawed February 2003 presidential election or following a brutal crackdown on demonstrators one year later. Armenian opposition figures implied at the time that the PACE monitor who authored the "biased" resolution in question had cut a deal with the Armenian authorities.

Byzantine Politics

This is not to deny or detract from the methodical and painstaking fact-finding work undertaken by many PACE rapporteurs, or the objectivity and relevance of many of their recommendations. Swiss parliamentarian Andreas Gross confessed to journalists in Baku in April 2005 that after 19 visits to Azerbaijan over a period of three years that he was still at a loss to comprehend some nuances of the country's Byzantine politics. The PACE resolution adopted in the wake of the November 2005 parliamentary elections highlighted Azerbaijan's perceived failures in the spheres of democratization, rule of law, and human rights and enumerated appropriate measures to redress those failings, most of which have been ignored.

By the same token, the unquestioning PACE support for the principle of territorial integrity seriously circumscribed its ability to challenge or mitigate Russia's repressive policies in Chechnya, despite the campaign waged by Lord Frank Judd during his three-year (January 2000-February 2003) tenure as rapporteur.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that PACE has become the hostage of a paradigm it adopted in good faith in 2000-01, when the South Caucasus states were accepted as Council of Europe members on the assumption that the respective governments were sincere in their commitments to democratization.

It cannot now substitute more stringent criteria that would warrant a tougher response to perceived failing or backsliding without risking accusations of double standards from soft authoritarian regimes that have for years monitored, and sought to take the maximum advantage of, its aspirations to even-handedness, objectivity, and fairness. But it has only minimal leverage to coerce those states to live up to their commitments.

And in the final analysis, those regimes may well have concluded that temporarily losing voting rights in PACE would be a minor inconvenience compared with, for example, the economic sanctions imposed by the UN on Iran or the EU travel bans on leading Uzbek or Belarusian officials.

Liz Fuller is co-editor of RFE/RL's commentary and analysis desk.
The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

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