The Council of Europe: an introduction

What is it?

The Council of Europe (CoE) is primarily a human rights organisation. Its most important achievement is arguably the European Convention on Human Rights, a treaty designed to protect human rights, democracy and the rule of law. The CoE is sometimes confused with the European Union (EU), which is a different organisation although both were set up in the aftermath of World War II.

The key institutions in the CoE structure are the Committee of Ministers (CM), the Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) and the European Court of Human Rights. The CoE is headed by Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland, former Prime Minister of Norway.

CoE Member States must:

  • adhere to the aims and principles in the CoE Statute;
  • commit to ratifying or acceding to the European Convention and other CoE human rights instruments;
  • agree to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights.

The CoE is based in Strasbourg and has 47 Member States, including all 28 EU Member States.

What does it do?

The CoE promotes freedom of expression and of the media, freedom of assembly, equality, and the protection of minorities through international conventions. It helps Member States fight corruption and enact judicial reforms. Its constitutional experts (the Venice Commission) offer legal advice worldwide.

CoE membership has been a stepping stone for many former Eastern bloc countries towards EU membership and ratification of the European Convention has become a condition of EU membership. The EU is preparing to accede to the European Convention, thereby creating a common European legal space for over 820 million citizens.

Committee of Ministers

The CM is composed of the Member States’ foreign ministers or their permanent representatives. It is the CoE’s decision-making body and also supervises the execution of European Court of Human Rights judgments.

Parliamentary Assembly

PACE is composed of 318 national parliamentarians from CoE States. Its key roles are:

Scrutiny: it holds governments to account over their human rights records, and presses States to achieve and maintain democratic standards.

Initiating ideas: it makes proposals for improving Europe’s laws and practices.

Debate: it is a forum for debate on key political and social issues, helping to avoid conflict and encouraging reconciliation.

Powers: it uncovers human rights violations, ensures States keep their promises, demands answers from State leaders and recommends sanctions where necessary.

Achievements: include ending executions in Europe, helping former Communist countries towards democracy.

The jurisdiction and general principles of the Court

The European Court of Human Rights oversees implementation of the European Convention in the Member States. Individuals can bring complaints of alleged human rights violations to the Court once all possibilities of appeal have been exhausted at home. But the Court cannot amend national law or ‘disapply’ it; that is for States to do if necessary, in compliance with their treaty obligations.

In its judgments the Court adheres to the principle of proportionality and generally takes into account a ‘margin of appreciation’, although the principle is not written into the Convention itself.

Budget

The CoE is financed by contributions from the Member States, which are fixed according to scales taking into account population and gross national product. The total budget for 2013 was €404 million. The UK’s contributions to the CoE budget 2005 – 2010 and the UK allocation to the Court were set out in a parliamentary written answer on 8 February 2011. In 2010, the total UK contribution to the CoE was €24.9 million, including €1.8 million to PACE and €5.7 million to the Court.

The Human Rights Act 1998 and the status of the European Convention in UK law

The Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) incorporated the main provisions of the Convention into UK law, thereby enabling claimants to bring an action directly before UK courts. Before this, the Convention was binding on the UK in international law as an external treaty obligation, rather than directly as legislation of the UK Parliament, and the Convention’s human rights guarantees could not be relied upon in UK law.

Article 15 of the European Convention allows States to derogate from certain Convention rights in time of war or public emergency; the UK currently has no derogations but a reservation in respect of Article 2 of the First Protocol, the right to education.

As a party to the Convention, the UK Government has agreed to uphold its human rights guarantees in accordance with international law, and to accept the jurisdiction of the Court of Human Rights.  UK law is made to conform with the duties and obligations of the Convention. UK Government policy has been to give effect to decisions of the Court, by changing the law if necessary, although this has implied a somewhat ambiguous relationship between the Convention and UK law. For information on UK cases at the Court, see Library Standard Note 5611, UK Cases at the European Court of Human Rights since 1975, 2 December 2013.

Author: Vaughne Miller