A new European institution should document Russia’s human rights violations, argues ex-diplomat Ernst-Jörg von Studnitz. It should be modeled on an institution established to document the East German government’s crimes.

Boris Nemzow memorial (picture-alliance/dpa/M. Japaridze)

At a time when relations between Russia and the West are clearly strained, an initiative that Moscow could interpret as interference in its domestic affairs might seem like an odd move. But that’s exactly what Ernst-Jörg von Studnitz is advocating. The honorary chairman of the German-Russian Forum and former German ambassador in Moscow issued a call in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper to set up a documentation center to collect information on Russian human rights abuses. The former Central Registry for State Judicial Administrations in the German city of Salzgitter could serve as a model.

The German model

The Central Registry in the northwestern state of Lower Saxony was established in 1961. Lawyers collected, among other things, evidence of shooting orders at the border with West Germany, cases of political persecution, and incidences of ill-treatment in the East German prison system. According to its data, some 40,000 cases were documented. After German reunification in 1990, the documents were used as evidence in court. Studnitz says that in the case of Russia, the files should also be made available to the courts.

Ernst-Jörg von Studnitz (picture alliance/Sascha Radke)Studnitz served as Germany’s ambassador to Russia from 1995 to 2002

Establishing a similar institution in relation to Russia could play an important role not only in the future, but also now. “If people know that rights violations are being documented and might perhaps be used against them at some point, then they’ll be less likely to act in brutal or reckless ways,” Studnitz said.

While he doesn’t offer any concrete examples in his proposal, there are enough human rights violations in Russia to take into consideration – from the mistreatment of army recruits to the recent trial for the murder of opposition lawmaker Boris Nemtsov, in which many questions posed by lawyers went unanswered.

More authority at the European level

Studnitz argues the documentation center should be implemented at the European level, to give it more influence. The Council of Europe would be an effective implementer “because it’s an institution of which Russia itself is a part,” he said. Monitoring human rights is one of the organization’s central concerns. However, he admits Russia “would probably do everything in its power to prevent this.”

The Russian presence in the Council of Europe has diminished of late. Following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe revoked the Russian delegation’s voting rights. Moscow then withdrew its entire delegation in protest. In July, the Russian Foreign Ministry reported that Moscow was suspending payment to the Council until the country’s voting rights were reinstated.

A memorial for Boris Nemtsov (picture-alliance/dpa/C. Thaler)Leading Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov was murdered in 2015

As an alternative, Studnitz has called for the EU to establish the new human rights registry, because “the Lisbon Treaty has made it a principle to defend democracy and human rights in Europe, not just in the EU itself.”

Due to time restrictions, the general-secretary of the Council of Europe, Thorbjorn Jagland, declined to speak with DW for this article. His press secretary pointed to a “difficult situation” with Russia, in part due to the absence of a Russian delegation. “We’re trying to find a solution,” the spokesman said. The Council of Europe has already “adequately covered” the human rights situation in Russia and other countries, such as through the Human Rights Commissioner of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

The Council of Europe or the EU?

Experts generally approve of Studnitz’s proposal. Susan Stewart of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) believes that the discrimination against gay men in Chechnya would be an issue for the registry to take on. Russian media outlets have reported that gay men in the Caucasus republic are increasingly being persecuted, something Moscow denies. Germany has even granted some of them asylum. Stewart also advocates for excluding Russia from the Council of Europe “because it doesn’t respect its commitments.” The EU would be “a better choice” for the founding of the registry for human rights violations, she said, while also adding that the bloc should address its own democratic deficits – such as in Poland.

A protest in Berlin against homophobia in Chechnya (Getty Images/AFP/J. McDougall)Gay men in Chechnya have reportedly suffered persecution

According to Peter Schulze, who headed the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (affiliated with the Social Democratic Party) in Russia in the 1990s and was a founding member of the Russian think tank “Dialogue of Civilizations” in Berlin, a documentation center established by the EU would have “more teeth,” but he still prefers the Council of Europe. With the Council one can also include Russia. “It has to be an institution that investigates offenses in all European countries, including Russia and Ukraine, as well as the Russian Commonwealth,” said Schulze.

Whether it’s the Council of Europe or the EU, Studnitz is not worried that his proposal would further strain relations between Russia and the West. He points out that the Salzgitter center led to increased criticism of East Germany, but the country still maintained important financial and diplomatic ties with its western neighbor. So it should be with Russia today, Studnitz said.

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