Prague, 3 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - Last week's session of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly was most notable for a toughening of the body's stance toward the organization's 16 new Eastern members. In unusually strong language, the Assembly took Russia and Ukraine to task for failing to fulfill their pledges to end death penalty executions, as they had promised to do when they became Council members.
After a full monitoring of its obligations and commitments, Albania received only heavily qualified approval from the Assembly. Estonia did better, with the Assembly ending its formal monitoring process -- although it said it will still keep a critical eye on the Baltic nation's treatment of refugees and granting of nationality to non-ethnic Estonian residents.
Most significant of all, the Assembly set up a special new committee to continue monitoring the pledges made by other Eastern member states, and gave it the power to sanction members that persist in failing to honor their commitments. That effectively institutionalized the monitoring process and made it quasi-permanent -- that is, monitoring will continue until all promises made by new members are fulfilled.
The records of seven more Eastern states -- Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Macedonia, Moldova, Romania and Slovakia -- will soon be examined by the new 40-member committee. And when it has finished with them, seven more overall reviews will be undertaken of Croatia, Hungary, Latvia, Poland, Russia, Slovenia and Ukraine.
The Assembly dealt most harshly with Russia and Ukraine. By a large majority, it "condemned" their continuing to utilize the death penalty despite having said they would cease executions from the day they became members. The Assembly warned both countries that if they persisted in executions, they risked the suspension of their parliamentary delegations early next year. Both were also told that at its next session, in late April, the Assembly would reconsider the issue. If moratoria on executions had not been enacted before then, the Assembly said it would ask the Council's Committee of Ministers -- the organization's chief executive organ -- to take action.
There are at least three reasons for the Assembly's unprecedented condemnations of Russia and Ukraine.
First, the use of the death penalty is a particularly sensitive issue in Western Europe, where it has been abolished in virtually all nations except, in two cases (Britain and Cyprus), for treason or certain wartime military crimes. The Council's most important basic document, the European Convention on Human Rights, outlaws capital punishment in all nations that adhere to it -- and all Council members must sign the convention.
Second, to underline the point, the Assembly last year resolved that any state joining the Council must cease executions immediately and indicate their willingness to abolish the death penalty entirely within a reasonable period of time. Thus, new members like Russia and Ukraine that have continued executions are contravening not only the Human Rights Convention but also the explicit prescription of the Parliamentary Assembly.
Finally, there was a feeling of outrage among many Assembly members over the fact that the governments of Russia and Ukraine had apparently deliberately lied to the Council in giving the impression they had ceased executions. Hungarian member Zsolt Nemeth, who co-drafted last week's resolutions condemning the two countries, told our correspondent that he and other members of the Assembly's Legal Affair Committee were "astounded" to learn of numerous recent executions in both countries when they participated in a Council-sponsored seminar on the subject in Kyiv three months ago.
Nemeth and his co-drafter Renate Wohlwend of Liechtenstein say that both Moscow and Kyiv had been telling the Council for months before that they had ceased executions. In May of last year, they point out, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma even officially "certified" to the Council that his country had fulfilled all pledges it made upon being granted membership. But at the Kyiv seminar, Nemeth, Wohlwend and 13 other Legal Affairs Committee members learned from both Russian and Ukrainian participants that scores of executions had actually taken place in both countries since they entered the Council. The true figures for both countries, Wohlwend told RFE/RL was probably "in the hundreds."
So there was a special outrage in the Assembly with what was seen as lies by Russia and Ukraine. But there was also a widespread feeling among Assembly delegates that both nations -- as well as several other Eastern members recently admitted (Croatia and Slovakia were most frequently mentioned) -- really do not yet deserve to be members of an organization founded to promote democratic values, the rule of law and human rights. Those who share that feeling believe several new members were admitted under political pressure from the European Union, rather than on their own merits as rapidly reforming nations.
Council officials say that feeling is the major factor behind the Parliamentary Assembly's toughened stance toward the East. According to them, the Assembly bent to the political will of large West European nations like Germany and France in admitting many recent members.
"Now," says one official, "the Assembly is retaliating by forcing those new members to meet Council standards or suffer sanctions that could go so far as to suspend their membership."