Parliamentary Assembly session : 23 – 27 September 2002
The Council of Europe in Brief
Origins and membership
The Council of Europe is the continent's oldest political organisation, founded in 1949. It:
· groups together 44 countries, including 20 ex-communist countries (see paragraph on "the pan-European dimension"),
· has applications from 2 more countries,
· has granted observer status to 5 more countries (the Holy See, the United States, Canada, Japan and Mexico),
· is distinct from the 15-nation European Union, but no country has ever joined the Union without first belonging to the Council of Europe,
· has its headquarters in Strasbourg, in north-eastern France.
The Council was set up to:
· defend human rights, parliamentary democracy and the rule of law,
· develop continent-wide agreements to standardise member countries' social and legal practices,
· promote awareness of a European identity based on shared values and cutting across different cultures.
Since 1989, its main job has become:
· acting as a political anchor and human rights watchdog for Europe's post-communist democracies,
· assisting the countries of central and eastern Europe in carrying out and consolidating political, legal and constitutional reform in parallel with economic reform,
· providing know-how in areas such as human rights, local democracy, education, culture and the environment.
The Council of Europe's Vienna Summit in October 1993 set out new political aims. The Heads of State and Government cast the Council of Europe as the guardian of democratic security - founded on human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Democratic security is an essential complement to military security, and is a pre-requisite for the continent's stability and peace.
During the Second Summit in Strasbourg in October 1997, the Heads of State and Government adopted an action plan to strengthen the Council of Europe's work in four areas: democracy and human rights, social cohesion, the security of citizens and democratic values and cultural diversity.
Today, the Organisation continues to grow while at the same time increasing its monitoring to ensure that all its members respect the obligations and commitments they entered into when they joined.
How it works
The main component parts of the Council of Europe are:
· the Committee of Ministers, composed of the 44 foreign ministers or their Strasbourg-based deputies (ambassadors/permanent representatives), which is the Organisation's decision-making body. It is currently chaired by Luxembourg.
· the Parliamentary Assembly, grouping 612 members (306 representatives and 306 substitutes) from the 44 national parliaments and Special Guest delegations from the two candidate States. The current President is the Austrian Socialist Peter Schieder.
· the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, composed of a Chamber of Local Authorities and a Chamber of Regions. Its current President is Herwig van Staa (Austria)
· the 1300-strong secretariat headed since 1999 by Secretary General Walter Schwimmer (Austria) former Vice-President of the parliamentary Assembly and former President of the Group of the European's people party.
In 2002, 169,000,000 euros.
Some practical achievements
· 186 legally binding European treaties or conventions many of which are open to non-member states on topics ranging from human rights to the fight against organised crime and from the prevention of torture to data protection or cultural co-operation.
· Recommendations to governments setting out policy guidelines on such issues as legal matters, health, education, culture and sport.
The pan-European dimension
· Since November 1990, 20 countries from central and eastern Europe have joined the Council of Europe: Hungary (1990), Poland (1991), Bulgaria (1992), Estonia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic and Romania (1993), Latvia, Albania, Moldova, "the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" and Ukraine (1995), the Russian Federation and Croatia (1996), Georgia (1999), Armenia and Azerbaijan (2001), Bosnia and Herzegovina (2002).
· Applications for membership from Monaco (21 October 1998) and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (9 November 2000) are pending.
- In 1989 the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly introduced "Special Guest" status to forge closer links with the parliaments of central and eastern European states which are seen to be moving towards democracy and which accept United Nations and OSCE human rights commitments. Today, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (22 January 2001) has Special Guest status. Special Guest status granted to Belarus in September 1992 was suspended on 13 January 1997.
- The Council of Europe has various know-how programmes totalling, in 2000, some 11 500 000 euros to promote democratic and legal reform in central and eastern Europe. They also cover local government and management of justice and prison departments.
- The Council of Europe and the European Commission co-finance programmes in Albania and the Russian Federation. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova and Ukraine have also benefited from them in the past. A new programme has been set up since 2001 for Moldova and North Caucasus.
- The Council of Europe Activity Programme, setting five main Objectives within a Strategic Plan for the Organisation which was adopted during the 104th ministerial session (Budapest, May 1999), includes around 20 cooperation programmes that are also open to non member states, as well as conventional activities which have been conceived in the perspective of a "Great Europe without divisions".
- A special Council of Europe Commission for Democracy through Law, based in Venice, Italy, provides legal advice on the development and functioning of democratic institutions and constitutional law.
· The European Convention on Human Rights establishes a single and permanent system to control and protect human rights: the European Court of Human Rights. Anyone who believes that his or her rights have been breached under the Convention may lodge a complaint, provided no further legal remedies are available in the national courts. The Court decides if the case is admissible, and, if it is, establishes the facts and tries to bring about a friendly settlement. If that fails, the Court takes a binding decision.
· The European Commissioner for Human Rights : Following a decision of the 1997 Summit, the mandate for a European Commissioner for Human Rights was established in May 1999. The Spaniard Alvaro Gil-Robles was elected to the post in September 1999.
· The Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) bases its work on the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. It examines the way that people deprived of their liberty are treated and draws up recommendations to strengthen their protection.
· The Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine, opened for signature in April 1997, aims to preserve human dignity and integrity by putting the interests of human beings above those of science or society. In January 1998, a protocol banning human cloning was added.
Protection of national minorities
· The Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities came into force on 1 February 1998. It was set up by a decision of the Vienna Summit. Opened for signature on 1 February 1995, the Convention sets out the principles to be respected by states that ratify it. These include equality before the law; measures to preserve and develop culture and safeguard identity, religion, languages and traditions, to ensure access to the media and to protect the use of minority languages for hoardings and inscriptions.
· The Convention includes implementation machinery. This gives the Committee of Ministers, assisted by an advisory committee, powers to evaluate how the Convention is being put into practice. States who ratify the Convention are obliged to present, within a year of its entry into force, legislative and other measures taken to give it effect.
· The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages aims to promote the use of such languages in Europe.
The Strasbourg Summit decided to boost the work of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) which has been given the task of examining the way that member states fight racism, xenophobia and anti-semitism. A European youth campaign "All different, all equal", organised by the Council of Europe, took place between December 1994 and March 1996. A conference on this subject was organised on 12 and 13 October 2000, as the regional contribution to a UN world conference which will take place in South Africa in September 2001.
· The European Charter of Local Self-Government is considered the constitutional text for local self-government in Europe.
· The European Convention on the Participation of Foreigners in Public Life at Local Level enables foreign residents to obtain progressively greater civil and political rights in local communities.
· The Outline Convention on Transfrontier Co-operation Between Territorial Communities or Authorities is a legal framework to assist co-operation in such areas as regional, urban and rural development, environmental protection, improving infrastructure and public services and mutual help during disasters.
· The European Social Charter safeguards basic social standards. They cover such rights as the right to work and to professional training, to fair working conditions and pay, to union membership, to social and medical assistance and to social security. The 1996 revised Charter strengthens the principle of women's equality and recognises rights in other areas such as the right to decent housing.
· The Council of Europe Development Bank aims to provide funds for social projects such as aid to refugees and victims of natural disasters, housing, job creation in run-down areas, and social infrastructure. The Strasbourg Summit called for the Bank to boost its efforts in the social sphere and in job creation.
· In June 1998 the Committee of Ministers created a European Committee for Social Cohesion to encourage and co-ordinate efforts being made in this area by member states. It also launched a programme for children in May 1998, which aims to promote a child-friendly society where children are protected and parents are provided with the best means to carry out their child-raising tasks.
Security of citizens
· The European Convention for the Suppression of Terrorism aims to make extradition of terrorists easier.
· The Octopus project, launched jointly in June 1996 with the European Commission, aims to fight corruption and organised crime.
· As part of its action programme against corruption, the Council of Europe has adopted two new conventions to curb corruption in the penal and civil areas.
· A major Convention to combat cyberspace crime has been adopted in Budapest on 23 November 2001.
· In the fight against drugs, the Pompidou Group is the main European forum to take a multi-disciplinary approach to the problems caused by drug abuse and trafficking.
· The European Cultural Convention binds the 44 member states as well as Monaco and the Holy See. From central and eastern Europe, Belarus (18 October 1993) has acceded to this agreement which allows them to take part in the Council's activities on education, culture, youth and sport.
· "Europe, a Common Heritage" was the theme of the 1999-2000 campaign to promote European heritage.
· The Prix Europa is awarded for the best European television or radio programmes to help introduce them to a wider European audience and to promote their broadcast outside their own countries.
Some of the Council of Europe's activities have evolved as partial agreements open to member states.
· The European Centre for Global Interdependence and Solidarity (North-South Centre) was set up in Lisbon in 1990 following the European Campaign on the North-South interdependence and solidarity. The Centre works to encourage co-operation between Europe and the South. A second campaign - the European Campaign for Global Solidarity - was launched in September 1998.
· The European Pharmacopoeia draws up around 2000 standards to ensure quality medicine for all Europeans.
· Eurimages is the European fund for co-production and distribution of feature films and documentaries.
· The European Audiovisual Observatory regularly sends out Europe-wide statistics and data on audiovisual matters to 34 European states.
· The European Centre for Modern Languages, based in Graz (Austria), trains teacher-trainers, the authors of language manuals and experts in language programmes.