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The Council of Europe (CoE) is an international organisation based in Strasbourg, to promote democracy and protect human rights and the rule of law in Europe. The treaty establishing the statute of the Council of Europe was signed in London in 1949, initially by ten countries including the UK. Winston Churchill had proposed a Council of Europe in a speech in Zurich in 1946.

By the beginning of 2022, the Council of Europe comprised 47 Member States, including the UK and all 27 Member States of the European Union. It also included some former Soviet states, including Russia and Ukraine. However, its membership was reduced to 46 following the expulsion of Russia in March 2022 (see below).

The CoE promotes democracy and human rights through a range of international treaties and conventions. It has adopted more than 200 treaties, conventions and protocols, many of which are open to non-member states. Its best known convention is the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The European Court of Human Rights oversees how the Convention is implemented.

The CoE also monitors Member States’ progress in upholding its human rights standards through set independent expert monitoring bodies, which undertake country visits and issue recommendations.

Council of Europe bodies

Major CoE bodies include the Committee of Ministers, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and the European Court of Human Rights.

The Committee of Ministers (CM)

The Committee of Ministers (CM) is the Council of Europe’s statutory decision-making body. It is made up of the Ministers for Foreign Affairs of member states. The Committee meets at ministerial level once a year and at Deputies’ level (Permanent Representatives to the Council of Europe) weekly.

Article 15 of the CoE statute provides that the CM:

“shall consider the action required to further the aim of the Council of Europe, including the conclusion of conventions or agreements and the adoption by governments of a common policy with regard to particular matters”.

These can take the form of recommendations to the governments of member states.

Article 20 sets out voting procedures, which vary depending on the matter being voted. Voting can be by simple majority, two-thirds majority (either of CM representatives voting or of those entitled to sit on the CM) or by unanimity.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) is composed of 324 representatives (with an equal number of substitutes) appointed by the national parliaments of the CoE’s 46 member States.

Although its texts are not binding, PACE holds governments to account over human rights and democratic standards. It adopts opinions and recommendations and the 46 CoE governments must give a collective reply. PACE meets four times a year for a week-long plenary session in Strasbourg. Different policy, political and organisational themes are covered by relevant Committees and sub-Committees.

The UK Delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly comprises 36 Members of the House of Commons and House of Lords (18 Representatives and 18 Substitutes). House of Commons Members comprise around 70% of the Delegation, and Peers around 30%.

The UK and the Council of Europe

The UK was instrumental in establishing the Council of Europe in 1949. The UK continues to play an active role in all parts of the organisation. The webpage of the UK delegation to the CoE explains that:

We increase the effectiveness of the Council of Europe (CoE) and the UK’s influence within it to make the CoE better able to protect the UK’s goals in Europe on improving human rights, democracy and respect for the rule of law.

The UK and the ECHR

Some MPs have raised concerns about the impact of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and interpretations by British courts since the Human Rights Act 1998 incorporated the rights set out in the Convention into UK law.

The Government launched an independent review of the Human Rights Act in December 2020. Following the review, the Government said it would introduce a new UK Bill of Rights, which would “continue to respect the UK’s international obligations as a party to the Convention”. It also said it would continue to support further reforms to the European Court of Human Rights, as well as to the wider system of the Convention. The Government confirmed its intention to proceed with this plan in the Queen’s Speech on 10 May 2022.

Expulsion of Russia

On 25 February 2022, the day after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Committee of Ministers met and agreed to suspend Russia from its rights to representation in the CoE.

On 15 March, the Parliamentary Assembly issued an opinion that the Committee of Ministers should request Russia immediately withdraw from the Council of Europe, and that it should otherwise expel it. On the same day the Russian Government informed the Secretary-General of the Council of Europe that it would be withdrawing from the Council of Europe. It would also be withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights.

However, the following day the Committee of the Ministers decided to expedite matters. Its decision on 16 March 2022 provided that Russia would cease to be a member of the Council of Europe from that day (16 March 2022). This was under Article 8 of the Statute of the Council of Europe providing for expulsion of member states.

Russia will cease to be a High Contracting Party to the European Convention on Human Rights on 16 September 2022. This is in accordance with the six months’ notice period for denunciation set out in Article 58 of the Convention (pdf).

Russia can continue to be a Contracting Party to those Council of Europe conventions and protocols, to which it has expressed its consent to be bound, and which are open to accession by non-member States.

Suspension of relations with Belarus

Belarus has never been a member of the Council of Europe, partly because its continuing use of the death penalty would breach a condition of membership. However, Belarus has joined some Council of Europe conventions, protocols, and partial agreements.

Following Belarus’s involvement in the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the Council of Europe suspended cooperation with Belarus. A Committee of Ministers decision on 17 March 2022 suspended Belarus’s participation as an observer and in other capacities at all meetings of the Council of Europe, as well as its participation in partial agreements.  It also suspended all technical co-operation with Belarus while enhancing CoE relations with Belarusian civil society and the opposition in exile.

Further reading

See also House of Commons Library briefing paper, Work of the Council of Europe and the expulsion of Russia

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