COE Parliamentary Assembly Holds Hearings Following Investigation into Members’ Corruption
The Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) Rules Committee is set to hold a hearing today, May 15, on its findings on a member of PACE’s compliance with the PACE Code of Conduct following an investigation on allegations of corruption among members of PACE in connection to Azerbaijan; the independent investigation concluded that some PACE members have violated the PACE Code of Conduct. See PACE, Committee on Rules of Procedure, Immunities and Institutional Affairs Draft Agenda (2018). The PACE Rules Committee already held a hearing on four members mentioned in the conclusions of the investigation; issued findings on three, concluding only one violated the Code of Conduct; postponed the findings on the fourth member to today; and has dedicated itself to holding hearings on the conduct of the remaining PACE members mentioned in the report. [PACE Press Release: Findings]
Three former judges were appointed to carry out the investigation in May 2017, and nearly one year later, on April 15, 2018, the “Report of the Independent Body on the allegations of corruption within the Parliamentary Assembly” was released. The report found, among other conclusions, that several members of PACE who worked on issues related to Azerbaijan had conflicts of interest, and in one case, was accepting money in exchange for suppressing a report. See Council of Europe, Report of the Independent Body on the allegations of corruption within the Parliamentary Assembly (2018), xii, paras. 725-38. Following the release of the report, the Secretary General to PACE, Thorbjørn Jagland, observed in a public statement that PACE members have undermined the work of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe and his own work to release a political prisoner in Azerbaijan. [Council of Europe Press Release]
Investigative Body Report Findings
The investigative body, which was composed of external and independent members, focused on allegations of corruption within election observation missions, acts of bribery in the form of gifts, and financial negotiations in the context of PACE’s Code of Conduct. See Council of Europe, Report of the Independent Body on the allegations of corruption within the Parliamentary Assembly, xi-xii. The investigative body found that while some members carrying out the election observation missions had conflicts of interests, there was no determination that the officials acted improperly, that the gifts were customary “courtesy gifts” and not an exchange to obtain a specific result from a member of PACE, and that PACE members violated PACE’s Code of Conduct in using certain financial negotiations. See id. at xii. The investigation revealed that former and current PACE Members of Parliament engaged in lobbying activities and using “money and other corruptive activities as a means of influencing various activities which were directly or indirectly seen as being in favour of Azerbaijan,” respectively. See id. Additionally, several members of PACE were found to have undisclosed conflicts of interest while engaging in work involving Azerbaijan. See id. at paras. 582-619.
Although the election observation mission itself was not considered invalid, members of PACE who engaged in the election mission were found to have conflicts of interest, in violation of the PACE Code of Conduct. See id. at para. 640. The PACE mandate includes election observations, and the PACE Bureau is tasked with approving an ad hoc committee to carry out the election observation. See id. at paras. 289-292. Members of PACE who wish to participate in election observation missions may express interest in doing so, and at that time “must make a written declaration regarding the absence or otherwise of any actual or potential conflict of interest” that the individual has in relation to the country where the election observation will take place. See id. at para 292. The investigative body found that at least four members of PACE who engage in election observation had conflicts of interest in violation of the PACE Code of Conduct. See id. at paras. 639-44.
PACE has observed several elections in Azerbaijan and often was at odds with other regional bodies conducting election observations; inside PACE, members also have disagreed on the approach to take with Azerbaijan, considering its human rights record. See id. at para. 627-29. The report notes that following election observations, PACE delegations along with other parliamentary delegations, including the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (ODIHR), the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and the European Parliament, deliberate and decide on a joint statement; however, in the case of Azerbaijan, following the election observation missions PACE was involved in, sometimes the joint statement could not be agreed upon. See id. at para 300. The investigative body received allegations that the PACE delegation, in particular, often attempted to make the text less critical than the ODIHR prepared text, and that PACE was often successful in doing so. See id. The investigative body, though, declined to look into whether the statements accurately reflected the observations. See id. at 638.
In 2015, ODIHR did not undertake an election mission because of a lack of cooperation on the part of Azerbaijan. See id. at para. 631. The investigative body found that PACE was not wrong to undertake an election mission in the absence of ODIHR; however, the investigative body urged PACE to refrain from doing so when the ODIHR decides for its own valid reasons not to engage in election observation and, further, urged to increase cooperative efforts to reach consensus among parliamentary bodies. See id. at para. 632. As to other allegations in the context of election observation, including PACE members holding meetings with Azerbaijani officials and engaging in improper activities on election day instead of observing the polls, the investigative body did not find evidence to suggest a violation of the ethical rules. See id. at paras. 645-77.
Conflicts of Interest and Corruption
The report noted that since Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe, there has been a softening of criticism toward the country, and, relatedly, the report established that some current and former members of PACE engaged in activities that violated the PACE Code of Conduct. See id. at paras. 575, 580. Several PACE members who took on rapporteur positions involving Azerbaijan neglected to disclose conflicts of interest. For example, one rapporteur was found to have a personal interest in releasing political prisoners in Azerbaijan, which is in contravention of the principles of impartiality, neutrality, and objectivity under the Code of Conduct for rapporteurs of the parliamentary assembly and whose conflict of interests in other activities violated the PACE Code of Conduct. See id. at paras. 595-596. Another rapporteur reportedly made a confidential draft of a PACE report on Azerbaijan available to the State’s delegation and took suggestions on the report from that delegation. See id. at paras. 587-88. Further, the investigative body found several former, and honorary, PACE members were lobbying for Azerbaijan in violation of the Code of Conduct. See id. at paras. 688-717.
The report detailed how at least one PACE member accepted money in exchange for pushing a certain agenda, particularly the defeat of a report. See id. at paras. 725-38. A PACE member received money through shell companies and argued that a report on the definition of political prisoners, the Strässer report, should not be adopted and ultimately defeated the adoption of the report. See id. at paras. 17-19, 725-38.
PACE made clear its intention to address allegations of corruption in its statement on April 26, 2018, days after the report was released. It noted that it would adopt and carry out the recommendations in the report in regards to transparency in procedures, including appointments. [PACE Press Release: Tolerance] PACE called for action domestically to address wrongdoing by the members of its delegation to PACE and to “report back to the Assembly by the end of 2018” as to the measures taken, noting the Investigative Body was not tasked with providing judicial proof of the violations. [PACE Press Release: Tolerance]
Enforcement of European Court Judgment
The Council of Europe’s other bodies have also confronted issues in relation to Azerbaijan. The Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers initiated formal infringement proceedings against Azerbaijan for its refusal to comply with the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) judgment of 2014 in the case of Ilgar Mammadov v. Azerbaijan in which the Court held that the State was in violation of the right to liberty for arbitrarily detaining a political activist. [Council of Europe Press Release; IJRC] Infringement proceedings are a mechanism to hold States accountable for failing to comply with a ECtHR judgment; this case marked the first occasion that the Committee of Ministers initiated the proceedings. [Council of Europe Press Release; IJRC]
PACE is a parliamentary body that is tasked with deliberating on topics related to political, social, and economic issues as well as matters of cooperation among the Council of Europe Member States. See Council of Europe, Report of the Independent Body on the allegations of corruption within the Parliamentary Assembly, para. 554. PACE does not have the authority to pass legislation; however, “its findings may have wide-ranging effects on various aspects of the political, legal and economic functioning of those States, and their perception by the international community as a whole.” See id.
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