Council of Europe
The Council of Europe is the oldest European organisation, having been founded by 10 Member States on 5 May 1949. Today it covers virtually the entire European continent and numbers 47 Member States. The main purpose of this international organisation is to serve as an overarching legal and democratic body that ensures respect for certain core values, such as the protection of fundamental rights and respect for democracy and the rule of law. It also seeks common solutions to major societal problems. The Council of Europe is based in Strasbourg and is composed of traditional bodies, including a Committee of Ministers, a Parliamentary Assembly and a European Court of Human Rights, plus some more recent institutions.
The Committee of Ministers
This is the Council of Europe’s decision-making and management body. It comprises the members’ foreign ministers who meet up once a year in May. These ministers take turns in chairing the Committee for six-month periods. The Committee’s daily management is entrusted to so-called ministers’ deputies, who meet each week in Strasbourg and determine the organisation’s policy, adopt its budget and approve its programme of activities. They also decide which measures to take on the basis of recommendations made by advisory bodies like the Parliamentary Assembly and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities.
Apart from the annual meetings of the ministers for foreign affairs, three Conferences of Specialised Ministers on specific issues like justice, family affairs and social cohesion are organised every year. Participation by Belgian officials in the meetings of working groups depends on the topics covered, under the aegis of Steering Committees covering cooperation on penal or civil law, human rights, social cohesion, health, social security, education, culture and youth.
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE)
This is the driving force behind the organisation’s political initiatives and also its deliberative body. It raises topical issues and prospective topics for discussion, concerning social problems or international policy issues.
At their four annual one-week meetings in Strasbourg, its 636 representatives and substitutes, comprising parliamentarians from the Member States, examine texts submitted for adoption. Their resolutions or recommendations serve to guide the Committee of Ministers. PACE must also be consulted about all international treaties drawn up at the Council of Europe. In addition, it elects some key figures at the Council of Europe, including the Secretary General, the judges of the European Court of Human Rights and the Commissioner for Human Rights. The Belgian delegation comprises 7 active members and 7 substitutes.
The Congress of Local and Regional Authorities (CLRA)
This Council of Europe consultative body was set up in 1994 and offers an ideal forum for dialogue as well as speaking for over 200,000 regions and municipalities. It comprises two chambers: a Chamber of Local Authorities and a Chamber of Regions. The CLRA has 636 full members and substitute members and meets up once a year in Strasbourg. It monitors the development of regional and local democracy, promotes political dialogue between territorial entities and fosters cross-border cooperation at the regional and local levels. It has also played an active role in implementing the European Charter of Local Self-Government, the European framework agreement that governs cross-border cooperation between territorial authorities and entities. The Belgian delegation comprises 7 representatives in the Chamber of Regions and 7 representatives in the Chamber of Local Authorities.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR)
The ECHR is the permanent legal body of the Council of Europe. Its job is to make sure that the Member States respect the European Convention on Human Rights and its protocols. It comprises 47 judges and may have cases referred to it by Member States but, more importantly, also by individuals who have exhausted their respective domestic appeal process. This possibility of individuals lodging applications to have cases heard by the Court gives it unique international jurisdiction. Over almost half a century, the Court has delivered more than 10,000 judgements. ECHR judgements are binding on the Member States and require the respective governments to amend their legislation and administrative practices in a number of domains as well as pay out compensation to victims of injustices.
The Commissioner for Human Rights
This independent institution is a recent creation, dating from 1999. The Commissioner’s job is to promote education people about and raise their awareness of human rights in the Member States, ensure that they are respected and monitor the compliance of national legislation with the Council of Europe’s normative instruments. It plays a key role in prevention. The present Commissioner and his predecessor have drawn up reports on the human rights situation in each Member State of the Council of Europe. Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg paid a visit to Belgium between 15 and 19 December 2008. The ensuing report was published in June 2009.
The Secretary General
Elected by the Parliamentary Assembly, the Secretary General’s job is to plan and determine the strategic orientation of the Council of Europe’s programme of activities, fix its budget and exercise control over its daily activities. The General Secretariat is split into four main bodies:
- The Directorate General of Democracy and Political Affairs (DGDPA)
- The Directorate General of Human Rights and Legal Affairs (DGHL)
- The Directorate of Social Cohesion
- The Directorate General of Education, Culture and Heritage, Youth and Sport (DG IV)
Since 1949, the Council of Europe has adopted 200 treaties that constitute the legal basis for cooperation between the nations of Europe and for legislative harmonisation within the various Member States. It has also issued many resolutions and recommendations to its Member States, exercising active control over the respect for these standards via monitoring. See The Council of Europe and Human Rights.
The Council of Europe has often broken new ground in considering joint solutions to Europe’s societal problems, including discrimination against minorities, xenophobia, intolerance, bioethics and cloning, terrorism, human trafficking, organised crime and corruption, cybercrime, violence against children, among others.
Over the past 15 years, 180 joint cooperation programmes have been concluded between the Council of Europe and the European Commission. These instruments facilitate cooperation with countries that have recently joined the Council of Europe (like Russia, the Baltic and Balkan States, Ukraine, and so on) and focus on subjects like fighting corruption and organised crime, boosting public awareness of human rights, educating people about human rights, the abolition of the death penalty, and promoting respect for minorities and the Social Charter. The means used include training personnel, publishing experts’ reports, organising workshops and advising governments.
The Venice Commission offers legal advice and assists Member States in their efforts to make their legal and institutional framework comply with European standards on democracy, human rights and the pre-eminence of law.
Relations with other international organisations
Whilst the Council of Europe has regular links with the United Nations, over the last few years it has also developed deeper relations with the two other main European organisations: the OSCE and the EU.
Cooperation between the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe is reflected in regular, high-level meetings, consultations and exchanges of information at all levels. It also focuses on four priority domains:
- The fight against terrorism;
- measures to combat human trafficking;
- the protection of national minorities;
- issues to do with tolerance and non-discrimination.
The European Union
At the Warsaw Summit in May 2005, Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker was assigned by his colleagues to draft a report on the relations between the Council of Europe and the European Union. The resulting report was published in April 2006 and contains a number of recommendations that have not yet been followed up, with the exception of one concerning the election of the Secretary General of the Council of Europe. Subsequently, on 23 May 2007 the Council of Europe and European Union signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) providing a new framework for their cooperation. That MoU confirms the reference role played by the Council of Europe with respect to fundamental rights and highlights the need for consistency between both organisations’ legal standards governing human rights. Furthermore, it calls for closer cooperation between both organisations.
The Council of Europe has also signed an MoU with the European Union on cooperation with the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (based in Vienna) with a view to creating synergies between them. The two organisations maintain daily contact through the Council of Europe’s Brussels Office and the European Commission’s Ambassador to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.