“We need the Council of Europe today more than ever, as a critical forum for Human Rights” Joachim Gauck, President of Germany
“The Council of Europe synthesizes the transformation of a continent” Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary General of the United Nations
The Council of Europe, the continent’s leading human rights organisation
The Council of Europe (CoE) is one of the oldest international organisations dedicated to fostering co-operation in Europe and the only intergovernmental organisation focusing exclusively on the protection human rights, democracy and the rule of law. It is comprised of 47 member states, including all 28 European Union member states, and 6 observer states. All Council of Europe member states have signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights, a treaty designed to protect human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
Founded in 1949 by the Treaty of London, the CoE was established by a group of national leaders to ensure that the horror and suffering of the 20th century’s two world wars would never be repeated. The CoE’s values are the promotion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Since its creation, the CoE boasts a series of achievements, including the abolition of death penalty, the strengthening of human rights, the fight against racism and discrimination, and upholding freedom of expression.
For more information about the CoE you can watch “Inside the Council of Europe“:
A need and many opportunities for NGO participation
While the impact and success of the European Convention on Human Rights and of the European Court of Human Rights in the protection of human rights in Europe is widely recognized and celebrated, it is often forgotten that the Council of Europe has created over 200 treaties to promote human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
The conventions of the CoE are legally binding agreements with which a member state is obliged to comply once it has signed and ratified them. Compliance with many of these conventions, in particular the newer ones, is monitored by a number of bodies.
The CoE monitoring mechanisms, which enable the CoE to identify areas of non-compliance and address recommendations to its member states, provide venues for NGO participation and rely heavily on the reception of alternative reports and information from the civil society to conduct their assessment of the compliance.
However, as highlighted by Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland in his speech during the PACE 2014 winter session, there is a “need to better use, analyse and follow up the findings of our monitoring bodies. They are our key added value and comparative advantage, yet dramatically underexploited”.
It is therefore crucial to increase the knowledge and build the capacity of NGOs to better use the many resources – legal instruments, reports, resolutions and recommendations, available to them to hold their governments accountable. But it is at the same time essential to encourage and facilitate the sustained provision of information to the CoE and to amplify the voice of the field-based NGOs as to positively impact the work and the efficiency of the monitoring bodies of the CoE and enhance the implementation of the CoE standards.
Examples of monitoring mechanisms
The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), comprised of an expert from each member state, is the CoE’s independent human rights monitoring body. It specialises in combating racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and intolerance.
The European Committee of Social Rights (ECSR) ascertains whether countries have honoured the undertakings set out in the European Social Charter (revised in 1996). Its 15 independent, impartial members are elected by the Committee of Ministers for a period of six years, renewable once. The monitoring procedure is based on national reports, and on a collective complaints procedure.
The Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA) is the taskforce attached to the European Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings and is responsible for monitoring its implementation. GRETA is composed of 15 members who are independent and impartial experts from a variety of backgrounds. The monitoring procedure consists of national reports, however if GRETA considers it necessary it may also request information from civil society and/or organise country visits in order to obtain more information.
The Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO) is the independent expert body responsible for monitoring the implementation of the CoE Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence. The GREVIO just elected its first 10 members, which will subsequently become 15 members following the 25th accession. The Convention provides for two types of monitoring procedures: a country-by-country evaluation procedure and a special inquiry procedure.
The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) was set up under the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment to monitor the implementation of Article 3 ECHR. It is comprised of independent and impartial experts from a variety of backgrounds, including lawyers, medical doctors and specialists in prison or police matters, who carry out visits to places of detention, in order to assess how persons deprived of their liberty are treated (including prisons, juvenile detention centres, police stations, holding centres for immigration detainees, psychiatric hospitals, social care homes, etc.) CPT delegations carry out visits on a periodic basis (usually once every four years), but additional “ad hoc” visits are carried out when necessary.
The structure of the Council of Europe and its institutions
The Committee of Ministers is the CoE’s decision-making body and comprises the foreign ministers of all the member states, or their permanent representatives in Strasbourg. The Committee of Ministers decides the CoE’s policy and approves its budget and programme of activities.
The Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) is the political driving force behind many CoE initiatives. It consists of 318 parliamentarians from the 47 member states and sits four times a year. The Assembly elects the Secretary General, the Human Rights Commissioner and the judges to the European Court of Human Rights; it provides a democratic forum for debate and monitors elections; its committees play an important role in examining current issues.
The Secretary General is elected by the Parliamentary Assembly for a term of five years, the holder of this office heads the Secretariat of the CoE. He is responsible for the strategic planning and direction of the Council’s work programme and budget. He leads and represents the Organisation. The current incumbent is Thorbjørn Jagland of Norway.
The Commissioner for Human Rights is an independent institution within the CoE, mandated to promote the awareness of and respect for human rights in the 47 CoE member states. He independently addresses and brings attention to human rights violations. Nils Muižnieks is holding the office since January 2012.
The Congress of Local and Regional Authorities is responsible for strengthening local and regional democracy. It comprises 636 elected representatives representing more than 200 000 local and regional authorities in all of the CoE’s member states.
The Conference of International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs) provides a vital link between politicians and ordinary citizens, and helps to ensure that the voice of civil society is heard at the Council of Europe. The Conference includes some 400 international Non Governmental Organisations (INGOs).
The European Court of Human Rights is the permanent judicial body which guarantees for all Europeans the rights safeguarded by the European Convention on Human Rights. It is open to states and individuals regardless of nationality. The 47 member states of the Council of Europe are parties to the Convention.