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How does the Council of Europe protect human rights?


In March 2023, just over a year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian Federation was expelled from the Council of Europe – an international organisation that aims to protect human rights in its member states. We spoke to Dr Corinne Lennox, Programme Director of the MA Human Rights programme at the University of London.  

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The Council of Europe was founded in 1949 with the intention of upholding three main principles across the member states: democracy, human rights and the rule of law. As an international organisation, the Council cannot make laws, but it can push for enforcement of international agreements. It also has oversight of the European Court of Human Rights, which makes legally binding decisions on the protection of human rights.   

The organisation has close ties and is often mixed up with the European Union. Although these are two different entities, the EU has adopted the original European flag and anthem designed for the Council of Europe in 1955. Moreover, no country has joined the EU without first being a member of the Council of Europe.  

In March 2022, the Council excluded the Russian Federation from the organisation in response to aggression against Ukraine. Prior to that, only one other country has withdrawn from the membership: in 1969 Greece left after the Greek junta military coup, but re-joined the Council five years later, in 1974, after the change of government.  

Following the military invasion of Ukraine, the Committee of Ministers condemned the attack and called Russia to “immediately and unconditionally cease its military operations”. With this urge ignored, the Council expelled Russia with immediate effect.  

“Russia's decision to leave the Council of Europe was a devastating blow to the protection of human rights within Russia as well as its accountability in the war in Ukraine,” says Dr Lennox, Co-Director of the Human Rights Consortium at the School of Advanced Study. With the withdrawal, a country doesn’t just lose voting privileges, but puts its citizens at risk.  

If a country is a member of the Council of Europe, their citizens can appeal to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) when their rights are abused. If the court rules in favour of the citizen, the state is bound by the ECHR ruling and must execute its decisions. 

The Court can also provide monetary compensation to the applicant or require the state to cover the cost of bringing the case. In exceptional cases, the Court may also grant the applicant “interim measures” aimed to protect them from harm during the proceedings. The Council of Europe, in its turn, is responsible for enforcing the Court’s judgment.  

Since its establishment in 1959, the European Court of Human Rights has delivered 24,511 judgments. Some international rights scholars consider it to be the most effective international human rights court in the world 

Citizens of Russia have previously made use of the European Court of Human Rights to protect their rights, and they will be more vulnerable to oppression by the Putin regime as a result of leaving the wide range of monitoring mechanisms under the CoE.

According to the ECHR’s official 2021 review documents, nearly a quarter of 70,150 applications pending by the end of 2021 had been lodged against the Russian Federation. Withdrawing from the Council of Europe leaves Russian citizens with fewer avenues to seek redress for rights violations by the state.  

By leaving the European Convention of Human Rights, Russia can avoid international legal procedures under the European Court of Human Rights for its violations of human rights in Ukraine.

This issue is not exclusive to Russian Federation and its citizens, with many people around the world struggling to defend their rights and seek justice. There are various official and non-governmental international organisations looking to help, from providing legal advice and shelter to forcing the state to uphold international human rights agreements.  

It is one of the most challenging areas in lawmaking and enforcement, and one that demands extensive study and expertise. Every country needs skilled, qualified law professionals that understand how human rights can and should be protected and reinforced, from within or outside of the country.  

The University of London’s distance learning MA Human Rights, led by Dr Lennox, gives students a solid grounding in the challenges and various methods organisations and individuals can use to secure human rights. One of its core modules, “Translating human rights into international law”, focuses on the relationship between regional and international law and how some basic principles of human rights become enshrined in law. 

The programme is taught fully online, resulting in a vibrant, global cohort of students, many of whom already work in the human rights or humanitarian fields. The cutting-edge course content is developed by leading activist scholars from the Human Rights Consortium, with a practice-based approach designed to prepare students to launch, or advance, their careers in human rights. 

Learn how you can develop as a human rights practitioner with the MA Human Rights