The Committee of Ministers
The Committee of Ministers is the decision-making body of the Council of Europe, consisting of the foreign affairs ministers of each member State. The Council of Europe describes the Committee of Ministers as "both a governmental body, where national approaches to problems facing European society can be discussed on an equal footing, and a collective forum, where Europe-wide responses to such challenges are formulated." The Committee of Ministers works closely with the Parliamentary Assembly to monitor State compliance with international law obligations.
The Parliamentary Assembly
The Parliamentary Assembly is one of two statutory organs of the Council of Europe and is made up of 636 members, elected by their national parliaments and based on the country's population size. One of the members is then elected to serve as Assembly President. The work of the Parliamentary Assembly is carried out by specialized committees, which address such issues as human rights, social, health and family affairs, economic affairs and development and equal opportunities for men and women. The Assembly meets quarterly in Strasbourg, or Paris, France, in sessions in which European and world events that require Council of Europe action are discussed. The sessions are open to the public. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can take part in some activities of the Parliamentary Assembly's Committees (such as the Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men) as observers and can also provide information to the Assembly through other channels. The Parliamentary Assembly regularly adopts resolutions that provide guidelines for the Committee of Ministers as well as national governments. The Parliamentary Assembly initiates the drafting of European treaties. The Assembly also holds conferences and public hearings on specific topics, such as violence. The Parliamentary Assembly should not be confused with the European Parliament, which is a body of the European Union that consists of 15 directly elected representatives from the EU member States. The Parliamentary Assembly additionally appoints the Secretary General of the Council of Europe on the recommendation of the Committee of Ministers. The Secretary General serves for a five year term.
The Commissioner for Human Rights
In 1999, the Council of Europe created the office of the Commissioner for Human Rights. The Commissioner is elected by the Parliamentary Assembly and has a number of functions, including but not limited to: (1) promoting education in and awareness of human rights in Europe; (2) contributing to the “effective observance and full enjoyment of human rights” throughout Europe; (3) providing advice and information on human rights violations; (4) facilitating the work of ombudsmen or other investigators in the field of human rights; (5) identifying possible shortcomings in the laws of Member States in the field of human rights; and (6) addressing and responding to matters concerning the Committee of Ministers or Parliamentary Assembly. The current Commissioner for Human Rights is Nils Muižnieks. The Commissioner principally carries out his work through official visits to member States and through seminars and conferences. The Commissioner has held annual meetings with NGO representatives, government officials, members of intergovernmental organizations and religious authorities on such issues as the rights of the elderly and the situation in Chechnya.
One important function of the Commissioner for Human Rights is the presentation of conclusions and recommendations, which can arise from an official visit, a seminar or independently. The Commissioner's recommendations are presented in one of two forms: in a visit report to the Committee of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly on a particular country, for example Bulgaria, Slovakia, Moldova, Georgia and the Russian Federation, or as Recommendations on a specific and widespread human rights problem, addressed generally to all member States. While the function of the Commissioner for Human Rights resembles that of the United Nations Special Rapporteurs, the Commissioner cannot receive individual complaints or present them to national or international courts or to administrative bodies. The Commissioner's functions are limited to issuing conclusions or recommendations of a general nature that may be based on individual complaints. The Commissioner can encourage governments to take action at the national level, through cooperation with national human rights structures, such as national ombudspersons.
The European Court of Human Rights
The European Court of Human Rights was created in 1959, in accordance with the provisions of the European Convention, as an independent body to review complaints that member States are not in compliance with obligations under European treaties. Both individuals and NGOs of member States have a right to petition the European Court of Human Rights. Initially, complaints were first subject to preliminary examination by the European Commission on Human Rights, but since 1998 and the entry into force of Protocol 11, the complaint procedure has been simplified and streamlined. Today, the European Court of Human Rights alone determines the admissibility of complaints, reviews cases and delivers final judgments. Since its inception, the European Court of Human Rights has issued more than 10,000 judgments.
The European Court of Human Rights is composed of the same number of judges as Member States, but without restrictions on the number of judges of the same nationality. The judges serve the court in an individual capacity, not as representatives of particular countries. The Parliamentary Assembly elects the judges. Protocol No. 14, which entered into force on June 1, 2010, extended the term for judges on the court from six to nine years, without the possibility of re-election. The Court itself is divided into five Sections, the composition of which is both geographically and gender balanced. Each section is divided into committees and chambers and presided over by a President. The Court's chambers determine admissibility of a complaint or application, and can also render a judgment. After a judgment has been delivered, any party may request that the Grand Chamber, which serves an appellate function, review it. The final judgments of the Grand Chamber are legally binding on the State concerned. The complaint submission procedure of the European Court of Human Rights is described in more detail in the European enforcement mechanisms section of this site.
The Directorate General for Human Rights
The Council of Europe addresses women's human rights as well as other human rights issues through the Directorate General for Human Rights. The Directorate General for Human Rights is one of four bodies that address the priority areas of the Council of Europe (human rights, social cohesion, culture and education and legal affairs). The mandate of the Directorate General for Human Rights (DGII) is to develop and implement human rights policy for the Council of Europe. In carrying out this work, the DGII assists and advises various Council of Europe institutions, including the Secretary General, the Committee of Ministers and the Commissioner for Human Rights, and cooperates with other human rights bodies, such as the United Nations, the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and NGOs. The DGII also monitors developments in Europe and initiates actions on emerging human rights problems.
The Steering Committee for Equality between Men and Women
Within the Directorate General for Human Rights, the Steering Committee for Equality between Men and Women is the intergovernmental body responsible for "defending, stimulating and conducting the Council of Europe's action to promote equality between women and men." The Committee members are specialists who are appointed by their member States. Among its functions, the Committee holds two meetings a year, can create working groups on specific issues and establishes analyses and studies as a basis to determine policy strategies to implement equality. The Steering Committee recognizes that "violence against women is a serious obstacle to equality between women and men, and perpetuates inequality" and addresses all forms of violence against women, including domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment and trafficking in women. The Steering Committee has carried out research, organized seminars and drafted legal texts to combat violence against women in Council of Europe member States. Some information about these activities is available on the Council of Europe website.
In addition, the major documents of the Council of Europe, that define the obligation of member State to combat violence against women are summarized on this site as well as on the Steering Committee documents page.
The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture is a non-judicial body that carries out both periodic country visits and also ad hoc visits to places of detention. The term 'places of detention' is understood broadly to include such facilities as prisons, police cells, military barracks, juvenile detention centers, holding centers for immigrant detainees, social care homes, and psychiatric hospitals. After a country visit, the Committee generally issues a confidential report, which includes recommendations to the State party. The Committee consists of independent and impartial experts, in the same number as State parties to the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Committee members are elected and serve four-year terms. The Committee serves a cooperative function, working to improve State protection of the rights of detained individuals. Apart from scheduled visits, the Committee will consider communications from individuals and groups. More information about the communications process can be found in the European enforcement mechanisms section of this site.
Cooperation with Non-Governmental Organizations
The Council of Europe considers non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to be essential to the promotion of democracy and is therefore open to dialogue and cooperation with civil society. The Council of Europe invites NGOs to acquire consultative status in order to participate more fully in such activities as the drafting of conventions, promoting ratification of treaties, representing individual complainants or submitting collective complaints and participating in conferences. The Council of Europe website includes a page with further information for NGOs about how to apply for consultative status, the activities of the Conference of International Non-governmental Organizations of the Council of Europe, the schedule of the NGO Plenary Conference, and about sub-groups of NGOs, for example. The Council of Europe also has a leaflet, The Council of Europe open to voluntary organizations, with an overview of specific ways in which NGOs can cooperate with the COE.
“Council of Europe in brief,” Council of Europe, accessed June 4, 2013, http://www.coe.int/aboutcoe/index.asp?page=nosObjectifs
“Mandate,” Council of Europe, accessed June 4, 2013, http://www.coe.int/t/commissioner/Activities/mandate_en.asp
“Steering Committee for Equality Between Women and Men,” Council of Europe, accessed June 4, 2013, http://www.coe.int/t/dghl/standardsetting/equality/04CDEG/index_en.asp.