European Human Rights System
last updated July 25, 2013
The European human rights system consists of regional intergovernmental organizations that focus on issues emerging in the larger European arena. Although the STOPVAW site uses the term "European" to describe the regional human rights system comprised of the Council of Europe (COE), the European Union (EU) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), membership in the COE and the OSCE includes some countries which are not located in Europe (notably countries located in the Caucuses and Central Asia). In addition, both the Council of Europe and the European Union have initiated cooperative projects, consisting primarily of technical assistance, with the non-member former Soviet Central Asian countries and Mongolia.

Of the three intergovernmental organizations, the Council of Europe (COE) has the broadest human rights focus. The Council of Europe was founded in 1948 and currently includes 47 member States.[1] The Council of Europe promotes and protects human rights and the rule of law through education, monitoring and direct enforcement of the obligations found in COE treaties.

The European Union was created as the European Economic Community following the Second World War primarily for the purpose of promoting economic stability and peace in Europe. The institutions of the union have created policy on human rights issues as well as economic community issues. There are currently 28 European Union Member States, following the accession of Croatia on July 1, 2013. Recognizing the connections between stability and principles of democracy, European Union membership is predicated on respect for the rule of law and protection and promotion of human rights.[2]

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is a regional security organization consisting of 57 member States in Europe, Central Asia and North America. [3] The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe takes a comprehensive approach to security, meaning that the OSCE also addresses human rights.

Countries that are Member States of one of the organizations described above may not necessarily be members of the others. Currently, a number of countries that are already Council of Europe members have acceded to the European Union. Croatia is the last country to join the European Union on July 1, 2013. Iceland, Montenegro, Serbia, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Turkey are candidate countries. Additionally, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo hold potential candidate status.[4]

In addition to the organizations mentioned above, the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC), which replaced the Stability Pact for South-Eastern Europe in 2008, plays an important role in the promotion of women's rights in the region, particularly in the area of trafficking in persons.[5] The RCC focuses on cooperation between South-Eastern European countries and assists with preparing candidate and potential candidate countries for becoming members of the EU. The RCC has developed and currently maintains working relationships with several state actors, international organizations, international financial institutions, and other members of civil society in the area.[6]

The European human rights legal system is based on treaties and is elaborated and explained by other non-binding documents, such as resolutions and directives. These basic documents serve as guidelines to member States on the obligation to protect women from violence. The mechanisms available to enforce such human rights obligations vary from organization to organization, but the Council of Europe, European Union and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe all have procedures by which they can receive information from NGOs. Finally, each of the European organizations also has a distinct structure, with various divisions that directly address the human rights of women. Because there is cooperation between the organizations at various levels, including joint initiatives, it is important to have a clear understanding of the organizational structure and function of each body.


[1] “Council of Europe,” Council of Europe, accessed June 4, 2013,

[2] “Member Countries of the European Union," European Union, accessed June 4, 2013,

[3] “Participating States,” Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, accessed June 4, 2013,  

[4] “On the Road to EU Membership,” European Union, accessed June 4, 2013,

[5] “South East European ministers to endorse regional strategy on justice and home affairs, prepared under RCC auspices,” Regional Cooperation Council, accessed June 4, 2013,

[6] “Regional Cooperation Council Overview,” Regional Cooperation Council, accessed June 4, 2013,