Rolling Back Democracy: The Council of Europe and the OSCE

At last week’s Council of Europe conference "Safeguards for Free Media: Promoting Effective Guarantees for Freedom of Expression in the South Caucasus, Moldova and Ukraine" (download a pdf event program from the CoE website), the timidity of Council officials was much in evidence.

As a multilateral organization of 47 states dedicated to establishing human rights standards, sometimes called "the conscience of Europe," the Council’s modus operandi is bound to be discreet. Yet skilled officials have achieved progress even in adverse circumstances. They know the CoE is most effective when it links with civil society organizations, in pursuit of concrete reforms. Local activists can act as megaphones for soft-speaking Council staff. No other organization has done more to build triangular contacts between NGOs, member-state governments, and European institutions.

But the CoE needs something else as well: clear support from influential third-party states. Working with the OSCE in Croatia in the late 1990s, I saw European Union and US ambassadors reinforce the CoE’s excellent critique of local media laws, shrinking the government’s wiggle room almost to zero. On delicate questions of public policy, endorsement by strong bilateral players is indispensable.

It follows that the Council of Europe isn’t, and cannot be, hawkish. Even so, the complete risk-aversion of its officers at the Tbilisi conference was new to me, and dismaying. Fortunately, some of the journalists and activists present refused to trade in the sort of generalities that could cause no offense to the attending spokesmen, particularly those from Azerbaijan: a regime that throws bloggers in jail, and last year refused medical care to an elderly journalist who then died in prison.

In the event, no offense was actually taken; it rarely is; even authoritarian regimes know that talking-shops hardly pose a threat.

When the closing session brought questions about international monitoring of media standards, Council staff denied that their organization does any such thing. They even denied the Council puts pressure on member states; all it does, they said, is encourage cooperation.

It was a chilly message for journalists surviving on the thinnest of financial margins, amid widespread and inventive abuses of government power. Nor was it quite candid, for the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly has asked the CoE to develop “a specific monitoring mechanism for identifying and analyzing attacks on the lives and freedom of expression of journalists in Europe.”

As for pressure, the European Court of Human Rights issues judgments which are bitter medicine for some states, including in the field of media standards. (Such as the important September 2009 ruling on Moldovan public television, which may even be a landmark in Court case-law.) The Court does not close a case until the judgment has been implemented. It may not bark, but the Council does know – at its best – how to hang on by its teeth.

Georgians know how vulnerable Europe’s intergovernmental organizations are to subversion from within. For the OSCE’s civilian mission to Georgia was cancelled last year at Russian insistence, along with the United Nations observer mission.

The OSCE’s future as a regional security organization that promotes human rights is looking shaky. Coming at this moment, Kazakhstan’s chairmanship was heralded with  concern in many quarters, but one good thing at least has happened under Kazakh watch: the organization appointed Dunja Mijatovi? as its new Representative on Freedom of the Media. Given her achievements at the telecoms and broadcast regulator in Bosnia and Herzegovina, there is every reason to expect Mijatovi? will be outstanding at the OSCE.

There is a growing literature (For example: Peter Burnell, "Is there a new autocracy promotion?," FRIDE, 23 March 2010; Michael Emerson & Richard Youngs, eds., "Democracy’s Plight in the European Neighbourhood," CEPS, 2009; T. Ambrosio, "Authoritarian Backlash: Russian Resistance to Democratization in the Former Soviet Union," Ashgate, 2009) on the current stagnation or, worse, rollback of democratic reforms in the post-communist world. I hope these analysts trace the backsliding to, among other causes, a superficial, box-ticking approach to reform that was sometimes taken by the international community, for short-term reasons. That’s a theme for another day.

Suffice to say here how interesting it will be to watch the European Union develop its Eastern Partnership initiative, which offers “deeper engagement” with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. As ever, the EU will focus on hard issues like border controls and energy supply. Yet there is also a “good governance” component, and a Civil Society Forum to channel input from NGOs. Boris Navasardian of the Yerevan Press Club, who sits on the Forum steering committee, is canvassing support for a Media Panel to raise awareness (and maybe funds) on a region-wide basis. While this is a very timely proposal, journalists and activists from the region still seem vague about the EaP. It’s time for an information campaign by EU offices throughout the region.

Recently the EU office in Georgia helped the Council of Europe to clinch local support for a charter of journalistic ethics. This was no simple step in such a fissile and politicized society. Council officials sometimes mutter that the EU takes credit for breakthroughs that rest on foundations laid quietly by the CoE. There may be truth in this, but why doesn’t the Council stand up straight for itself and its noble values? Otherwise it lets itself become marginal – then ignorable – and then resources will be cut.

It would be ominous as well as ironic if the EU were to become a more robust defender of human rights outside its own borders than the Council of Europe and OSCE. Or has this already happened on some issues? Do please share any experiences or thoughts.

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