The headquarters of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France
– Copyright AFP
It is the organisation that is often confused with similarly worded European institutions. But, this year, the Council of Europe stands out: it is celebrating its 70th birthday.
It held a commemorative ceremony at its headquarters in Strasbourg, France, on Tuesday (1 October) to mark the occasion, at which guest of honour, French president Emmanuel Macron, in his speech compared the organisation to “a common architecture, in the name of the great European fraternity”.
But what is the Council of Europe and what does it do?
The Council of Europe is an intergovernmental organisation whose role is to safeguard and uphold human rights and the rule of law on the continent of Europe. It does not have legislative powers, but rather enforces agreements made by European states – its best-known arm is the European Court of Human Rights (comprised of a judge from each member state), which upholds the European Convention on Human Rights, signed in Rome in 1950 and regarded as the Council’s crowning achievement.
Other prominent conventions include the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (the first international treaty to protect wildlife and the environment), the European Convention on Human Rights abolishing the Death Penalty, and the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.
The European Social Charter, adopted in 1961, has the widest remit of any such agreement globally. It guarantees the rights of citizens of member states to work, to receive social security and medical assistance, and was amended in 1988 to include protected working conditions, equal opportunities and social protection for the elderly, and again in 1996 to protect against poverty and social exclusion and enshrine the rights to housing, redundancy compensation and protection against workplace harassment.
The Council’s work also covers areas including doping, human trafficking, child sex abuse, cybercrime, data privacy, violence against women, protection of racial minorities, freedom and protection of the press, linguistic rights, electoral freedom and pharmaceutical regulation.
Click play above to watch archive footage of the Hague Congress of 1948, the signing of the London Treaty of 1949, the first session of the Council of Europe Assembly and the signing of the European Convention on Human Rights in 1950
Role in Europe
Not to be confused with the European Council or the Council of the European Union, the Council of Europe is not a body of the European Union. Although conflating the two is easily done, given that the EU co-opted both its flag, originally created by the Council in 1955 and its anthem, Ode to Joy, first used by the Council in 1972, in 1985.
No country has become an EU member state without being a member of the Council of Europe. Notable non-members include Kosovo, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Vatican City, which has observer status along with Japan, Canada, Mexico and the United States.
Founded in 1949, the Council represents 830 million people in 47 countries. It was formed by the Treaty of London, signed on May 5, 1949, by founder members Belgium, Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom. The date is now celebrated as Europe Day.
The council’s statutory bodies are the Committee of Ministers, comprised of the foreign ministers of each member country, and the Parliamentary Assembly, which is made up of members of the parliaments of each country from across the political spectrum.
The Congress of the Council of Europe comprises political representatives from local and regional authorities in all member states. The organisation’s official languages are English and French, with German, Italian and Russian also recognised as working languages.
The Council’s Secretary-General is elected by the Parliamentary Assembly for a term of five years, with former Croatian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign and European Affairs, Marija Pejčinović Burić currently in office, having been elected in June 2019. She is due to make her first address to the assembly on Wednesday, 2 October.