- Associated Press - Thursday, May 16, 2019

HELSINKI (AP) - Over 30 European foreign ministers have gathered in the Finnish capital to mark the 70th anniversary of the continent’s key human rights body, the Council of Europe.

The festivities were dampened somewhat by Russia’s continued threat to pull out of the organization due to a long-running dispute over Crimea.

The two-day meeting started Thursday in Helsinki’s historic Finlandia Hall, where the 1975 Helsinki Accords, meant to ease East-West Cold War tensions, were signed.

Russia, a member since 1996, has frozen funding to the Council of Europe, based in Strasbourg, France, after the body suspended Moscow’s voting rights following the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin would not attend the meeting, the country’s foreign ministry told The Associated Press, but host country Finland said Kiev would still send representatives to the gathering.

Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini said his country had tried to find a solution during its chairmanship to help relieve tensions with Russia but said “the origin of the crisis” was due to Russia’s actions.

“It was the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014,” Soini said. “And that cannot be forgotten.”

Speeches were given, among others, by Thorbjoern Jagland, the council’s secretary general, and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, whose country currently holds the body’s rotating six-month presidency.

The 47-member Council of Europe was founded in 1949 by Belgium, Britain, Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden as an upholder of democracy, human rights and rule of law. Its latest member is the Balkan nation of Montenegro, which joined in 2007.

The Council’s probably best-known unit is the European Court of Human Rights, which enforces the European Convention on Human Rights.

The organization is entirely separate from the European Union, though it works in close cooperation with the 28-member bloc.


David Keyton in Helsinki and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.

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