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The East: Turmoil Over 'Soft' Standards At Council Of Europe

Prague, 2 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - Turmoil and controversy have this week overtaken the usually calm and businesslike offices of the Council of Europe's Secretariat in Strasbourg.

The reason for all the excitement and disputation are the continuing shock waves created by a six-day-old interview by the Council's outgoing number-two man. Deputy Secretary General Peter Leuprecht told the daily he was taking early retirement this month in protest at what he called a lowering of the Council's human-rights standards for its new Central and East European members. Leuprecht repeatedly characterized those once stiff Council standards as "soft" for Eastern members.

Leuprecht was the first Council official to say in public what many in the Secretariat have said in private for years. The majority of Council professionals clearly believe that, under pressure from big West European member states like France and Germany, the 40-state organization has granted membership too fast and uncritically to many of the 16 former communist nations it has admitted in the past seven years.

Leuprecht did not pull any punches in his newspaper interview. He said he had always considered the Council of Europe as what he called "a community of democratic values." But he argued that in recent years Council officials' references to democracy and human rights have been reduced to what he dismissed as "a ritual." The organization, he continued, had enlarged too fast and therefore paid the price in the dilution of its values. Leuprecht added emotionally: "Some admissions (to the Council) stick in my throat."

In the newspaper interview, Leuprecht mentioned only one such admission by name --that of Croatia, the newest Council member state, admitted eight months ago. He described a recent meeting of the Council's Committee of (member-state) Ministers, its chief policy- and decision-making organ, where Croatian Foreign Minister Mate Granic spoke at length about his country being a model democracy that fully respects human and minority-group rights. Leuprecht recounted: "None of the ministers present said a word. Not even one to say, 'What do you take us for, idiots?' There was only a soft, soggy consensus."

But in a second interview, granted to independent Bosnian television a day later, Leuprect did mention other Eastern member-states by name, notably Romania and Russia. He said that the Council had begun to go soft when, four years ago, it admitted Romania when it was still far from meeting the organization's human-rights standards --although, he carefully added, Romania had made great democratic progress since it became a member. As for Russia, admitted early last year, Leuprecht dismissed that country's human-rights record as even further away from Council standards.

Those standards were established nearly a half-century ago (1949) when the Council of Europe was created to promote democracy, the rule of law and human rights across the continent. Until the collapse of European communism in 1989, the organization largely languished in Strasbourg without much clout. But soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Council --then with only 21 members, all from Western Europe-- began to reach out to Central and Eastern Europe, and eventually became the only multilateral body on the Continent with what it calls a "pan-European vocation."

Leuprect is an Austrian who earned a degree in law before joining the Secretariat in 1960. During his 37 years at the Council, he worked his way up, first, to Director of the Council's Human Rights Division and then, in 1993, to deputy to Secretary General Daniel Tarschys of Sweden. Both posts are determined by votes in the Council's Parliamentary Assembly, which consists of elected national officials from all of its member states.

Until last Thursday, Leuprecht was universally respected by member states' representatives, as well as by his Secretariat colleagues, for his diligence, intelligence and deft touch in resolving controversial policy and personnel questions. But now that he has bared his soul in public, Leuprecht has himself become the object of active controversy --not so much in the Secretariat, which largely agrees with him, as in Central and East European member states.

Thus, according to one well-informed Council official, Romanian Foreign Minister Adrian Severin --himself a long-time human-rights activist and former member of the Council's Parliamentary Assembly-- telephoned Secretary General Tarschys late last week to complain about Leuprecht's candor. The official said Severin was worried that Romania's candidacy for both NATO and the European Union might be affected by Leuprecht's remarks. Tarschys reportedly replied that Leuprecht was no longer a Council of Europe staff member and therefore could say whatever he liked to whomever he liked.

Neither Tarschys nor any other high Council official has yet commented publicly on the controversy. But knowledgeable diplomats in Strasbourg tell our correspondent that both Russian and Croatian officials have also made known to the Council their countries' displeasure at Leuprecht's remarks.

Inside the Secretariat, however, there is real pleasure over Leuprecht's indiscretions, which have finally given voice to many staffers' views. A high official of the Council's human-rights division, for example, told RFE/RL today that the Council "was simply overwhelmed by human- and minority-rights violations in several Eastern member states." The official mentioned Slovakia and Ukraine as well as Russia and Croatia as among the regular violators of Council standards. As for Albania, the official added, "it's impossible to keep track of anarchy."

That view was reflected by some Western press criticism of the Council of Europe's monitoring of last Sunday's elections in Albania. The leader of the Council's observer mission in Tirana, France's Catherine Lalumiere --Tarschys' predecessor as Secretary General-- declared the vote "adequate and acceptable." But Britain's "Daily Telegraph" --to cite only one instance-- said the vote, "as a democratic procedure, was a farce," and said the Council had "demeaned itself by overlooking the great shortcomings of the poll for what it hopes will create a more stable polity."

Now that Leuprecht has spoken, the Council of Europe can expect a lot more criticism from outside objective observers. With its second summit meeting due to held in three months, the Council may in fact be in for a very rough ride in the intervening months. It is also quite possible that its standards could become the object of open discussion either at the October 10-11 summit or at the Autumn session of its Parliamentary Assembly, scheduled for two weeks earlier. In letting the wind out of the Council's human-rights sails, Leuprecht has clearly opened what seems bound to be a public debate.