A short guide to European and UN institutions

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One of the main purposes of this websites is to help our readers, many of whom are working to defend human rights and human dignity in their respective countries, to better understand the institutional set-up in which these issues are dealt with at European and international levels. We have therefore compiled some basic information on the European Union, the Council of Europe, the United Nations and the OSCE, including some practical advice on how to work with these institutions.

While ordinary people usually know quite well  how they can influence the government of their own country, they have much less knowledge about the inner workings of the international bureaucracies that, albeit far distant from citizens and usually not equipped with a very convincing democratic legitimacy, wield enormous power in setting political agendas and defining “rights” and “values” at European or even world-wide level. The growing influence of organizations such as the UN and the EU can indeed be described as a “power shift to the unelected”.

This power shift has made it possible for the bureaucratic elites to impose their will on entire nations whilst being hardly exposed to any scrutiny. One example is the European Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), which officially has the task of providing “assistance and expertise” to the EU and its Member States, but which actually has ambitions to be a political agenda-setter. But which influence do ordinary citizens have on the selection and appointment of those experts? Similar questions could be asked with regard to the judges of the European Human Rights Court, or the 28 Members of the European Commission, or the President of the European Central Bank: all of them can make very far reaching decisions-but citizens hardly know how and why those decisions are made, and how one might influence them. The European Parliament does consist of elected parlamentarians – but its activities are seldom reported by mass media at national level, so that there is hardly any awareness and scrutiny of its activities. Resolutions like the inglorious Estrela Report (2013) or the Lunacek Report (2014) can be tabled and adopted because they are pepared in great secrecy and then thrust upon an unsuspecting and unprepared public.

The international bureaucracies are therefore an immense power machinery for insiders. In order to influence them, one must know them.


Information on these pages has been taken from a variety of sources, including the websites of the organizations and the guidance documents they have written, as well as from a highly recommendable publication: P. Coleman, E. Koren, L. Miranda-Flefil, The Global Human Rights Landscape, Vienna 2014 – with kind permission of the authors.

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