Open Society Foundations: An Introduction to the European Human Rights System

The Open Society Foundations has created a brief overview of the European human rights system. The guide describes ways in which civil society groups can participate in European processes to hold states accountable for their compliance with human rights law and provides contact information and useful links to key European institutions.

Introduction to the European System

The European human rights system is known for its progressive and active human rights institutions.  It is the earliest regional human rights system created by the establishment of the Council of Europe (COE) in 1949, encompassing ten Western European countries.  Currently, the European human rights system covers the majority of European countries and oversees treaty bodies as well as promotional activities.

The Committee of Ministers is the decision-making body of the COE and is comprised of the foreign ministers (or their permanent representatives) of all COE member states.  In addition to supervising the treaty bodies, the Committee of Ministers also makes separate Recommendations to member states on matters for which there is an agreed “common policy.”  Some of these Recommendations are provided by the COE’s Parliamentary Assembly, a consultative body composed of representatives of Parliaments and member states.

The most widely known institution is the European Court of Human Rights, which consists of smaller trial Chambers and a plenary Grand Chamber.  The European Court was established in 1950 under the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (also known as the European Convention on Human Rights or ECHR).  It monitors compliance with the ECHR and its Protocols.  The European Court of Human Rights issues advisory opinions and adjudicates both disputes between states and complains of individual human rights violations.  As a result the Court has established an extensive amount of case law.  The COE’s Committee of Ministers is responsible for monitoring implementation of judgments made by the European Court of Human Rights.

European Court of Human Rights

  • Mandate

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), a body of the Council of Europe (COE), enforces the provisions of the [European] Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The ECtHR adjudicates both disputes between states and complaints of individual human rights violations. The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe is responsible for monitoring the implementation of judgments made by the ECtHR.

  • Civil society participation
    Any individual or government can lodge a complaint directly with the ECtHR alleging a violation of one of the rights guaranteed under the Convention, provided they have exercised all other options available to them domestically. An application form may be obtained from the ECtHR website (www.echr.coe.int/echr/).

The Council of Europe has established a legal aid scheme for complainants who cannot afford legal representation. NGOs can file briefs on particular cases either at the invitation of the President of the Court, or as “Amici Curia” (Friends of the Court) if they can show that they have an interest in the case or special knowledge of the subject matter, and that their intervention would serve the administration of justice. Hearings of the ECtHR are generally public.

European Committee of Social Rights

  • Mandate

The European Committee of Social Rights (ECSR), also a body of the Council of Europe (COE), conducts regular legal assessments of government compliance with provisions of the European Social Charter. These assessments are based on reports submitted by governments at regular two-to-four-year intervals known as “supervision cycles.”  The Governmental Committee and the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe also evaluate government reports under the ECSR.

  • Civil society participation

Reports submitted by governments under the European Social Charter are public and may be commented upon by individuals or NGOs. International NGOs with consultative status with the COE, as well as national NGOs authorized by their government, may also submit “collective complaints” to the COE alleging violations of the Charter.

Useful Links

  • Committee of Ministers- the Council of Europe’s decision-making body comprised of foreign ministers of all member states, or their permanent representatives:  www.coe.int/cm
  • Parliamentary Assembly- the political driving force behind many of the Council of Europe’s initiatives, consisting of representatives from each of the 47 member states:  www.assembly.coe.int
  • Commissioner for Human Rights- an independent institution within the Council of Europe, mandated to promote awareness of and respect for human rights:  www.coe.int/commissioner
  • Conference for International NGOs:  www.coe.int/ngo
  • European Court of Human Rights:  www.echr.coe.int
  • European Court of Human Rights Judgements- provides an overview of pending cases, sortable by state, type of procedure, type of violation, and date of judgement:  www.coe.int/execution
  • The European Convention on Human Rights:  www.coe.int/convention
  • The European Social Charter:  www.coe.int/socialcharter
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