Council of Europe


Important Links:

The Council of Europe (CoE), a wholly separate entity from the EU, is based in Strasbourg, France and consists of 47 Member States. Every EU Member State is in the CoE, plus 20 other nations, including Russia and Turkey. The CoE was founded in 1949 by ten countries and seeks to develop human rights and democratic principles throughout Europe.

The CoE’s most important achievement is the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which was the first such convention that was subject to an international monitoring body with powers to make legally binding decisions, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). But besides the ECHR, there are more than 100 other international conventions that have been negotiated under the aegis of the CoE, many of which concern human rights issues.  A full documentation of those conventions is available at the website of the  CoE’s Treaty Office.

CoE diagram

Key Bodies and Institutions:

The Parliamentary Assembly of the CoE (PACE)  is comprised of Members of Parliament from the Parliaments of each Member State. It has 642 members, half of which act as substitutes. Member States may determine how they will choose their representatives, so long as they are members of the national parliament and fairly represent the various political parties within the country.

The Committee of Ministers is comprised of the Foreign Ministers of each Member State. The primary functions of the Committee include: supervising the execution of judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, adopting the CoE budget, admitting new Member States, monitoring commitments to the various treaties of the CoE, concluding Conventions and other agreements and interacting with PACE.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR)  is the primary supervisor of the CoE’s foundational document, the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). All applicant States to the CoE are required to accede to the ECHR as a condition of membership.

The European Committee of Social Rights is a 15 member body of independent experts charged with ensuring compliance with the European Social Charter. The Committee adopts conclusions with respect to national reports on Charter compliance and adopts decisions in relation to collective complaints brought against Member States that have ratified the Charter.

There are numerous other bodies within the CoE; the most relevant of which are the following:

Venice Commission

Created in 1990, the Venice Commission is an advisory body to the CoE and is composed of independent experts in the field of constitutional law. The body advises as to the legality of national laws in accordance with the legal principles established by the CoE. The Venice Commission may only advise on a piece of legislation if asked to do so by the CoE, the OSCE or by the Member State seeking to adopt the law in question. The opinions are non-binding, but frequently referenced by the European Court of Human Rights, PACE, and other international organizations.

European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI)

The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance was formed in 1993 as an independent human rights monitoring body focused on combating racism, discrimination, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and intolerance. ECRI is a keen supporter of “hate speech” legislation and in its General Policy Recommendation N°7, 2002, it proposed that Member States’ criminal law penalize “public insults” against a person or group of people based on their religion.

Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe

The Congress of the Council of Europe, also known as the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe, was created in 1994 and is composed of political representatives from local and regional authorities in all Member States. It is a pan-European political assembly, comprised of 636 members. Its role is to promote local and regional government.

Commissioner for Human Rights

The Commissioner for Human Rights was created in 1999 and is an independent, non-judicial institution of the CoE, mandated to promote awareness of and respect for human rights in the 47 Member States. The Commissioner monitors the human rights compliance of the Member States, issues papers on specific issues, and may intervene as a third party in cases before the ECtHR. The Commissioner has currently identified seven areas of thematic work to focus on, one of which is “Human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons (LGBT)”.

Conference of International Non-governmental Organizations

Lastly, in 2003, the additional body of the Conference of International Non-governmental Organizations was formed (INGOs), consisting of NGOs accredited with participatory status by the CoE. The Conference currently has approximately 400 member organizations. The Conference of INGOs meets in Strasbourg twice a year during the ordinary sessions of PACE.

NGOs can become members of the Conference but must be seen as being active on a European level as opposed to a domestic level. According to the website, “Participatory status is granted by the Council of Europe to international NGOs which are particularly representative at European level, that is to say which federate national member organizations in several of the 47 member states, and in the fields of their competence.” An application form can be found on the INGO website and new applications are considered once per year.

The status and relevance of the CoE has grown significantly since its formation over 60 years ago. The European Court of Human Rights is seen as the world’s premier international human rights court and its judgments are cited around the world and implemented in 47 countries. While the CoE continues to promote many important issues relating to democracy and human rights, in recent years it has increasingly been used as a platform to promote controversial issues including abortion, same-sex “marriage,” euthanasia, and embryonic research. The CoE has created a variety of mechanisms for NGOs to become involved in its processes, as the following checklist makes clear.

CoE Ways to Engage: Checklist


  • Become accredited with the Council of Europe by applying for Participatory Status with the Conference of INGOs


  • Attend the sessions of PACE in Strasbourg twice per year
  • Attend the sessions of the Conference of INGOs
  • Where applicable, engage with the projects of the different Council of Europe bodies, including the Commissioner for Human Rights, the Venice Commission, and the ECRI

Complaints/ Communications/ Litigation

  • File complaints with the ECtHR
  • Apply to intervene as a third party in relevant ECtHR cases
  • File collective complaints with the European Committee on Social Rights