Council of Europe

The Council of Europe and human rights

The primary aim of the Council of Europe is to create a common democratic and legal area throughout the continent of Europe, ensuring respect for its fundamental values: human rights, democracy and the rule of law. To this end it falls back on its founding text, the European Convention on Human Rights, complemented by the Social Charter. Over almost sixty years, the Council of Europe has developed considerable acquis, encompassing not only standards on civil and political rights, social rights, minority rights, the treatment of persons deprived of their liberty, the fight against racism and against corruption, but also the active monitoring of these standards. Such monitoring is carried out by several well-established independent monitoring mechanisms with recognised expertise and professionalism.

The European Convention on Human Rights and its Additional Protocols

The Convention remains the Council of Europe’s most striking achievement, defining the rights and freedoms that the Member States pledge to guarantee to anyone falling under their jurisdiction.

The Court and Committee of Ministers

The Court is the international tribunal authorised to hand down binding decisions on petitions concerning violations of the Convention. The Member States and, above all, individuals may refer cases to the Court, irrespective of their nationality, if they believe that a State Party has violated one or more of the rights guaranteed by the Convention. 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. The Court’s case law has made the Convention a powerful and dynamic instrument for rising to meet new challenges and shoring up the rule of law and democracy in Europe.

As the Council of Europe’s main political body, the Committee of Ministers also plays a key role insofar as the Convention specifically empowers it to monitor the execution of judgements.

The Commissioner for Human Rights

The post of Commissioner for Human Rights was established in 1999. It is an independent body responsible for promoting education on human rights and raising people’s awareness of them in the Member States, ensuring that they are respected, and monitoring the full and effective compliance of national legislation with the Council of Europe’s normative instruments. The Commissioner plays an essentially preventive role, having no executive powers, but does offer advice, conduct analyses and issue recommendations to the Member States designed to remedy any legislative shortcomings and prevent human rights violations. The Commissioner’s mandate entails promoting national institutions that defend human rights as well as cooperating with other international organisations. In June 2009 the Commissioner published the report he drew up during the visit he paid to Belgium between 15 and 19 December 2009.

The European Social Charter

The European Social Charter dates back to 1961, but was revised in 1996. It sets out social rights and freedoms and outlines a monitoring system that guarantees the State Parties’ compliance with them. It also undertakes to protect individuals’ rights regarding employment, pay, social protection, access to housing and the ban on child labour.

The European Committee of Social Rights (ECSR) monitors countries’ commitments in this connection. Its 15 independent and impartial members are elected by the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers. Each year the State Parties submit to it a report explaining how they apply the Charter in law and in practice. The Committee examines them and decides whether or not the respective national situations comply with the Charter, publishing its conclusions every year. In 2008 the ECSR came to Belgium to ascertain which of the new articles in the Revised European Social Charter our country could agree to ratify. In 2003, Belgium ratified an Additional Protocol to the European Social Charter that provided for a system of collective complaints. This enables the social partners to refer to the ECSR alleged violations of the Charter by Member States that ratified it.

Monitoring by the Council of Europe

The monitoring mechanisms in question were established either by conventions or by setting up specific bodies. Generally speaking, the bodies called upon to check that various conventions are followed up or which have their own scope of application are composed of impartial, independent experts. These experts travel to the Council of Europe’s Member States to verify in situ that Council of Europe standards are being applied. They also draw up reports and draft recommendations for the future.

Monitoring based on conventions

The European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) of 26 November 1987 established a European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (also abbreviated CPT). This Committee comprises independent experts from different background (lawyers, doctors, specialises in prison-related or police matters).

The Committee visits places of detention (prisons, detention centres for young offenders, police stations, detention centres for foreigners, psychiatric hospitals, etc.) to evaluate how persons deprived of their liberty are being treated. It can visit such institutions whenever it likes without having to give any prior warning, may talk to detainees without any witness present and can freely contact any individual liable to provide it with information. After each visit, the Committee draws up a report listing its findings and setting out any recommendations it deems necessary for improving the conditions faced by persons deprived of liberty. These reports, like the response by the Member States in question, remain confidential until such time as the government in question authorises their publication, as has become standard practice.

The Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (adopted on 1 February 1995) provides for a monitoring mechanism for evaluating how the Treaty is being implemented in the State Parties. This process leads to the issuing of recommendations designed to improve the protection of minorities in the respective monitored country. The remit of its Advisory Committee, which comprises 18 independent experts, is to conduct an in-depth analysis of the legislation and practices relating to minorities in the various countries and, for each of them, adopt opinions designed to help the Committee of Ministers draft resolutions.

The Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings sets out to prevent and combat all forms of human trafficking, whether national or transnational and whether or not related to organised crime. This Convention provides for the establishment of an efficient, independent monitoring mechanism that is capable of verifying compliance with the obligations set out in it. This body is the Group of experts on action against trafficking in human beings (GRETA) which was set up in January 2009 and is drawing up a questionnaire for the first evaluation of the present situation in the Member States.

Monitoring by specific bodies

The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) was established at the Vienna Summit in 1993. It is an independent monitoring body that specialises in combating racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and intolerance in all the Member States of the Council of Europe. ECRI's action covers all measures needed to combat violence, discrimination and prejudice against persons or groups of persons on the grounds of their race, colour, language, religion, nationality or national or ethnic origin.

ECRI publishes reports that contain in-depth analyses of the situations regarding racism and racial discrimination in each Member State. It also issues recommendations enabling the countries in question to attack any ascertained problems. ECRI came to Belgium in September 2008, as part of its Fourth Monitoring Cycle, and adopted its report on that visit on 19 December 2008, publishing it on 22 April 2009.

The Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) was established by the Council of Europe in 1999 to ensure the Member States’ compliance with the organisation’s anti-corruption standards. In its fight against corruption, GRECO helps to identify loopholes in national anti-corruption policies and encourage the Member States to press ahead with the necessary legislative and institutional reforms and practices. GRECO’s monitoring work includes a country-based evaluation procedure leading to recommendations and a compliance procedure aimed at evaluating the measures taken by Member States to implement these recommendations. GRECO conducts its evaluation in rounds. The Third Evaluation Round launched in January 2007 is concerned with incriminations stipulated by the Criminal Law Convention on Corruption and the transparency of political party funding. GRECO published its report on Belgium’s situation in this regard on 22 June 2009.

Policy monitoring

Policies are monitored by the Parliamentary Assembly and the Committee of Ministers and specifically concerns respect for the commitments made by the new Member States (after 1995) when they joined. These commitments are the focus of and basis for visits, reports and dialogues between the aforementioned bodies and the countries in question. They also serve as points of reference for the relations between other organisations, like the European Union, and these countries.

European Court of Human Rights

Commissioner for Human Rights

Monitoring by the Council of Europe