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The Council of Europe

The Council of Europe (CoE) was established in 1949, to promote democracy and protect human rights and the rule of law in Europe.

Ten member states, including the UK, were founding signatories of the CoE statute in 1949. The CoE expanded following the end of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s. It currently comprises 46 Member States. Its membership was reduced by one in March 2022 when Russia was expelled following its invasion of Ukraine.

Council of Europe conventions and bodies

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 and specific conventions through independent expert monitoring bodies, which undertake country visits and issue recommendations. 

The Committee of Ministers

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. The Presidency of the CM rotates every six months. Latvia holds the Presidency from May to November 2023

Heads of State and Government summits

There have been four summits of heads of state and government of the Council of the Europe. The most recent took place in Reykjavík, Iceland, in May 2023. Previous summits took place in 2005, 1997 and 1993.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) is composed of 306 representatives (with an equal number of substitutes) appointed by the national parliaments of the CoE’s 46 member states (there were 324 national parliament representatives prior to the expulsion of Russia).

PACE meets four times a year for a week-long plenary session in Strasbourg. It adopts non-binding opinions and recommendations, relating to developments in specific countries or the member states as a whole. 

The UK Delegation to PACE comprises 36 Members of the House of Commons and House of Lords (18 Representatives and 18 Substitutes). MPs 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 and continues to play an active role in all parts of the organisation.

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. Interpretations of the ECHR by both British courts and the European Court of Human Rights, have led some MPs to call for UK withdrawal from the Convention.

The UK Government has previously sought changes to the role of the European Court of Human Rights, and its relationship with domestic courts. This resulted in some reform proposals being adopted by the CoE in 2012.

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.

In June 2022, the Government presented a Bill of Rights Bill to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 and replace it with a new framework to implement the European Convention on Human Rights. The Bill has not yet had its second reading and no date is currently scheduled.

At the Council of Europe summit in Reykjavik in May 2023, the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak referred to the “vital role” played by the Council of Europe and its “extraordinary legacy” which has involved protecting human rights, abolishing the death penalty in Europe, supporting media freedom, “and championing democracy across Central and Eastern Europe after the Cold War”. 

However, he urged further consideration by the CoE of how it can continue to stand by Ukraine and learn lessons from how the CoE members previously dealt with Russia, and how it can address other issues such as cyber security, artificial intelligence and “tackling illegal migration”.

Response to Russian invasion of Ukraine

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, PACE 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 said it would be withdrawing from the CoE and from the European Convention on Human Rights. However, the Committee of Ministers decision on 16 March 2022 provided that Russia would cease to be a member of the Council of Europe from that day.

Russia ceased to be a party to the ECHR on 16 September 2022. This was in accordance with the six months’ notice period for denunciation set out in Article 58 of the Convention (pdf).

The Russian delegation had previously been suspended from PACE in 2014, following the Russian occupation of the Crimea. Russia subsequently halted its membership payments and threatened to leave the CoE altogether, before returning to the Assembly in 2019.

Suspension of cooperation with Belarus

A Committee of Ministers decision on 17 March 2022 also suspended Council of Europe cooperation 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 agreements and participated in some CoE bodies.

Establishment of register of damage caused by Russian invasion of Ukraine

At the Council of Europe Summit in Reykjavik in May 2023, heads of state and government of the CoE’s 46 member states decided to establish a register of damage caused by the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This is intended as an initial component of a future compensation mechanism, recording evidence and claims on damage, loss and injury caused since the invasion of February 2022. Canada, the USA and Japan have also agreed to join the register.

Other recent developments

Report of High-Level Reflection Group

A High-Level reflection group was set up by the Secretary-General of the CoE in June 2022 under the Irish Presidency of the CoE, following an invitation by the Committee of Ministers. It was tasked with drawing up a report and issuing recommendations relating to the CoE’s role “in responding to the new realities and challenges facing Europe and the world”.

The report of the reflection group (PDF), chaired by Ireland’s former President Mary Robinson, was published in October 2022. The report presented thirty recommendations to enable the CoE to respond to the challenges presented by the war in Ukraine by redoubling investment in its core work: the promotion of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. This would also involve enhancing pan-European cooperation, above all with the EU, as well as with the United Nations (see section 3 below).

Following on from the report, the CoE member states agreed on a proposal by the Irish Presidency to hold the summit of heads of state and government in May 2023, which would give further consideration to the CoE’s future role.

Reykjavik declaration

At the Reykjavik summit in May 2023, CoE heads of state and government agreed to strengthen its work in the field of human rights, democracy and the rule of law by adopting the “Reykjavik Principles for Democracy” declaration (PDF), alongside a broader statement in support of Ukraine and condemning Russian aggression. The “Principles for Democracy” declaration set out a range of principles to be respected, including freedom of expression, assembly and association, independent institutions, impartial and effective judiciaries, the fight against corruption, and participation of civil society.

The CoE leaders also reaffirmed the commitment of the member states to the European Convention on Human Rights, and the wider Convention system, and to abiding by the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights (see section 3 below).

The adoption of the declaration came after CoE Secretary General Marija Pejčinović Burić called on Europe’s leaders to act urgently to reverse a slide in democracy. She said Europe’s leaders could “answer Russia’s spiral of descent by lifting Europe up”.

Kosovo’s application for membership

Kosovo’s government said it would be applying for membership of the CoE in May 2022, indicating that it believed that following Russia’s expulsion, it would have enough support for an application to join the CoE.  Russia, along with Serbia and some other European countries, does not recognise Kosovo as an independent country and opposed Kosovo’s membership of the CoE.   

Under the Statute of the Council of Europe (PDF), decisions on accepting new members or asking existing members to withdraw require a two-thirds majority in the Committee of Ministers. In April 2023, the CoE Committee of Ministers voted by a two-thirds majority to initiate the accession process, forwarding Kosovo’s application to PACE for an opinion.

33 members of the CoE voted in favour of Kosovo’s application, with seven against and five abstentions. The President of Serbia, Aleksander Vučić, has continued to reiterate his country’s opposition to Kosovo’s membership of the CoE.

Council of Europe and Turkey

In March 2023, the Committee of Ministers of the CoE reiterated calls for the release of the former co-chair of a Kurdish political party in Turkey, Selahattin Demirtaş, and activist Osman Kavala, following European Court of Human Rights’ judgments in their cases.

In February 2022, the Committee of Ministers brought infringement proceedings against Turkey over its failure to implement a European Court of Human Rights ruling regarding Kavala (leading to a further European Court ruling against Turkey). This was only the second infringement case brought by the Committee of Ministers against a member state (the previous case being against Azerbaijan (PDF) in 2019).

Turkey was also criticised in 2021 by the Council of Europe, the EU and USA for withdrawing Turkey from the Council of Europe Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.

In 2017, PACE placed Turkey under a monitoring procedure until “serious concerns” about respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law were addressed. The PACE monitoring committee seeks to ensure that member states fulfil their obligations under the Council of Europe statute, European Convention on Human Rights and other CoE conventions.

Nine other CoE states are also currently subject to the PACE monitoring process. These are: Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Hungary, Republic of Moldova, Poland, Serbia, and Ukraine.

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