Council of Europe
The Council of Europe was founded in 1949 and has 47 members. The aim of this regional organisation is to promote the unification of the European continent by creating a common democratic and legal area in which democracy, the rule of law and human rights are guaranteed. Among other things, the Council promotes this unification through international treaties, most of which have been ratified by Belgium as a founding member.
The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)
The 1950 European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is the most important achievement of the Council of Europe. It establishes the fundamental rights and freedoms which Member States must guarantee for all people within their legal territory. The ECHR has been supplemented with 14 protocols.
It is the task of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) to ensure that Member States respect the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Convention. To this end, this international court of justice takes cognizance of complaints (called applications) submitted by individuals or sometimes by States. If the Court finds that a Member State has infringed one or more of these rights and freedoms, it hands down a judgement. This judgement is binding: the Member State in question is obliged to comply with it.
When the Court hands down a judgement in which a violation is established, it forwards the case to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, which, together with the country in question and the section responsible for enforcement of the judgements, determines how the judgement is to be implemented and how to prevent similar violations of the Convention. This will lead to the adoption of general measures, in particular amendments to legislation, and possibly individual measures. The Committee of Ministers is the decision-making body of the Council of Europe. It is composed of all Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the Member States or their Permanent Diplomatic Representatives in Strasbourg. The Committee of Ministers specifies the policy of the Council of Europe and approves the budget and the programme.
The function of agent of the Belgian government at the European Court of Human Rights is exercised within the FPS Justice. It consists of defending the State before the Court and implementing its judgements.
The European Social Charter
The European Social Charter (ESC) saw the light of day in 1961 and was comprehensively revised in 1996. It is the Convention of the Council of Europe which guarantees social and economic rights and is thus the counterpart of the European Convention on Human Rights, which pertains to civil and political rights. It covers a broad spectrum of human rights in the areas of employment, housing, health, education, social protection and well-being. Monitoring of compliance with the European Social Charter is entrusted to the European Committee of Social Rights (ECSR), which is made up of 15 independent experts elected by the Committee of Ministers. This monitoring function is carried out under two complementary mechanisms: firstly by a reporting system, and secondly by a collective complaints procedure. In the context of the reporting system, States parties regularly submit national reports on the implementation of the European Social Charter to the European Committee of Social Rights, which adopts annual conclusions. The follow-up of these conclusions is ensured by the Committee of Ministers. The Additional Protocol to the European Social Charter provides for a system of collective complaints, under which social partners and other NGOs can lodge complaints concerning non-compliance with the Charter by a law or practice of a State party. It cannot therefore relate to individual situations. The decisions of the Committee on such complaints are transmitted to the Committee of Ministers for follow-up. Belgium has ratified both the European Social Charter (2 March 2004) and the Additional Protocol (26 June 2003).
The Commissioner for Human Rights
The function of Commissioner for Human Rights was created in 1999. The Commissioner is elected by the Parliamentary Assembly for a six-year term which cannot be renewed. It is an independent body whose mission is to promote awareness of and respect for human rights in the Member States. The Commissioner conducts country visits and enters into dialogue with national governments and civil society, informs and advises on human rights issues and undertakes awareness-raising activities.
The Commissioner for Human Rights has a predominantly awareness-raising and preventive role. He or she provides advice, analyses and recommendations to the Member States to remedy shortcomings in legislation and prevent violations of human rights in practice. The Commissioner has already visited Belgium twice, in 2008 and 2015.
Specific monitoring mechanisms
The Council of Europe also has a number of specific mechanisms to monitor compliance with the standards developed over the past decades. The main monitoring mechanisms are:
- The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) was established by the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Through visits, this Committee examines the treatment of persons who have been deprived of their liberty, after which it draws up a report containing recommendations. Belgium ratified this European Convention on the Prevention of Torture (1 November 1991). The Committee has already made several visits to our country.
- The European Commission against racism and intolerance (ECRI) was established during the first Council of Europe Summit of Heads of State and Government at Vienna in 1993. This Commission also makes visits to the Member States and in its reports makes recommendations on the fight against racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and intolerance.
- The Lanzarote Committee is the Committee of the Parties to the Convention on Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse, also known as the Lanzarote Convention. The Committee provides questionnaires to the States parties to verify their compliance with the Convention.
- The Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO) was set up by the Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence. This group of experts publishes an evaluation report on compliance with the Convention on the basis of national reports from the contracting parties. On the basis of these evaluation reports, the Committee of the Parties, which also monitors compliance with the Convention, formulates recommendations. Belgium has ratified this Convention (11 September 2012).
- The Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA) was set up by the Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, which was ratified by Belgium (27 April 2009). This group of experts evaluates compliance with the Convention on the basis of questionnaires sent to the States parties, followed by a visit, which is followed by an evaluation report. On the basis of the evaluation report, the Committee of the Parties, which also monitors compliance with the Convention, formulates recommendations.
- The Advisory Committee on Minorities was established by the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. This Committee evaluates compliance with the Convention, among other things on the basis of national reports from the States parties. Belgium has signed this Framework Convention.
- The Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) was established by the Council of Europe in 1999 to ensure Member States’ compliance with the Council’s anti-corruption standards. The evaluation procedure involves gathering information by means of a questionnaire, followed by visits to the Member States, followed by an evaluation report with recommendations. Belgium is a member (1 May 1999).