The Commissioner for Human Rights is an independent and impartial non-judicial institution established in 1999 by Council of Europe to promote awareness of and respect for human rights in the 47 Council of Europe member states.
The fundamental objectives of the Commissioner for Human Rights are laid out in Resolution (99) 50 on the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights. According to this resolution, the Commissioner is mandated to:
- foster the effective observance of human rights, and assist member states in the implementation of Council of Europe human rights standards;
- promote education in and awareness of human rights in Council of Europe member states;
- identify possible shortcomings in the law and practice concerning human rights;
- facilitate the activities of national ombudsperson institutions and other human rights structures; and
- provide advice and information regarding the protection of human rights across the region.
The Commissioner's work thus focuses on encouraging reform measures to achieve tangible improvement in the area of human rights promotion and protection. Being a non-judicial institution, the Commissioner's Office cannot act upon individual complaints, but the Commissioner can draw conclusions and take wider initiatives on the basis of reliable information regarding human rights violations suffered by individuals.
The Commissioner co-operates with a broad range of international and national institutions as well as human rights monitoring mechanisms. The Office's most important inter-governmental partners include the United Nations and its specialised offices, the European Union, and the OSCE. The Office also cooperates closely with leading human rights NGOs, universities and think-tanks.
The activities of this institution focus on three major, closely-related areas:
- country visits and dialogue with national authorities and civil society
- thematic reporting and advising on human rights systematic implementation
- awareness-raising activities
The Commissioner carries out visits to all member states to monitor and evaluate the human rights situation. In the course of such visits, he meets with the highest representatives of government, parliament, the judiciary, civil society and national human rights structures. He also talks to ordinary people with human rights concerns, and visits places of human rights relevance, including prisons, psychiatric hospitals, centres for asylum seekers, schools, orphanages and settlements populated by vulnerable groups.
Following the visits, a report or a letter may be addressed to the authorities of the country concerned containing an assessment of the human rights situation and recommendations on how to overcome shortcomings in law and practice. The Commissioner also has the right to intervene as a third party in the proceedings of the European Court of Human Rights, either by submitting written information or taking part in its hearings.
The Commissioner also conducts thematic work on subjects central to the protection of human rights in Europe. He provides advice and information on the prevention of human rights violations and releases opinions, Issue Papers and reports.
The Commissioner promotes awareness of human rights in member states, by organising and taking part in seminars and events on various human rights themes. The Commissioner engages in permanent dialogue with governments, civil society organisations and educational institutions in order to improve public awareness of human rights standards. He further contributes to the debate and the reflection on current and important human rights matters through contacts with the media, the publication of periodic articles and thematic documents.
As part of country visits, thematic work and awareness raising activities, the Commissioner pays a specific attention to the defence of human rights activists and engages in close co-operation with other Council of Europe bodies and with a broad range of international institutions, most importantly the United Nations and its specialised offices, the European Union and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The office also cooperates closely with national human rights structures, leading human rights NGOs, universities and think tanks.
The initiative for setting up the institution was taken by the Council of Europe's Heads of State and Government at their Second Summit in Strasbourg on 10-11 October 1997. On 7 May 1999, the Committee of Ministers adopted a resolution which instituted the office of the Commissioner and elaborated the Commissioner's mandate.
The Commissioner is elected by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe from a list of three candidates drawn up by the Committee of Ministers, and serves a non-renewable term of office of six years.