Council of Europe

What is the Council of Europe?

The Council of Europe (CoE), comprised of 47 members including the 28 member states of the EU, is different from the European Union (EU) and is an international organisation in its own right.

The CoE is a regional body of European States which aims to develop common democratic principles among its members, based on the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and other human rights standards. The CoE, which was founded in 1949, is located in Strasbourg, France.

The Council of Europe has two statutory organs: The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and the Committee of Ministers. Its other components are the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, whose members represent Europe’s local authorities and regions, and the Secretariat, which is headed by a Secretary General who is elected by the Parliamentary Assembly.


The PACE aims to promote and protect human rights and achieve greater cooperation through common action, agreements and debates. It is is composed of representatives of the 47 Member States’ national parliaments. Its functions include:

  • electing judges for the European Court of Human Rights
  • giving opinions on draft Conventions and additional protocols
  • assessing a State’s eligibility for membership of the Council of Europe
  • monitoring the honouring of commitments and obligations by Member States

Committee of Ministers

The Committee of Ministers, which is made up of the ministers of foreign affairs of the Member States, is the decision-making body of the Council of Europe. It supervises the execution of judgements of the European Court of Human Rights, the judicial body for protecting human rights based in Strasbourg.

It can issue recommendations to Member States on matters that the Committee has agreed a common policy on. Recommendations are not binding. Search for recommendations of the Council of Europe in CRIN’s library.

Members of the Council

There are 47 Member States, but other States can be granted ‘special’ or ‘observer’ status at the Council.

European States can be granted ‘special guest status’ to facilitate their accession to the Council, provided they have signed the Helsinki Final Act and the Charter of Paris for a New Europe. There is currently one applicant – Belarus – but its special guest status has been suspended because of the country’s lack of respect for human rights.

Countries outside Europe can be granted ‘observer status’, meaning they can send observers to cooperate with the Council, provided they are willing to accept the principles of democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights. Current observer States are: the Holy See, the United States, Canada, Japan and Mexico. In addition, the Israeli, Mexican and Canadian parliaments hold 'observer status' with the Parliamentary Assembly.

Children's rights and the CoE

The main human rights treaty of the Council of Europe, the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (1950), which deals with civil and political rights, makes no mention of children’s rights. The first provision for children added to this Convention was in Article 5 of Protocol No. 7, which was adopted in 1984.

The other major human rights treaty of the Council of Europe is the European Social Charter which sets out economic and social rights. The provisions relating to children’s rights refer mainly to their right to protection in the workplace and from economic and social vulnerability. See Articles 7, 8, 16, 17, 19, 27, 31 and the CoE’s factsheet on children’s rights in the European Social Charter.

The CoE has also adopted a number of specific treaties on children’s rights which may be invoked to challenge breaches of these rights:

Mechanisms to hold governments to account if they violate children’s rights

The European Court of Human Rights monitors State Parties to the Council of Europe’s compliance with the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

The European Committee of Social Rights monitors States Parties' compliance with the European Social Charter.

Commissioner for Human Rights

There is no one appointed specifically to look at children's rights, but there is a Commissioner for Human Rights whose role is to:

  • promote education and awareness of human rights in Member States of the Council of Europe;
  • identify gaps in the laws and practices of these States; and
  • promote the observance and full enjoyment of human rights.

The Commissioner’s office, which was established in 1999, is an independent institution within the Council of Europe. The Commissioner, who is elected by the Parliamentary Assembly, cannot take up individual complaints before the European Court of Human Rights. However, he can submit written comments or participate in hearings as a third party in support of one of the parties in a case.

The Commissioner’s other activities include:

  • undertaking country visits to engage in dialogue with governments
  • making thematic recommendations and raising awareness
  • promoting the development of national human rights institutions

The Commissioner is democratically elected by the Parliamentary Assembly for a non-renewable term of six years. According to resolution (99) 50 on the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, "The candidates shall be eminent personalities of a high moral character having recognised expertise in the field of human rights, a public record of attachment to the values of the Council of Europe and the personal authority necessary to discharge the mission of the Commissioner effectively. During his or her office, the Commissioner shall not engage in any activity which is incompatible with the demands of a full-time office." Read more about the voting procedure.

How can NGOs participate in the CoE's work?

NGOs that have participatory status with the Council of Europe can participate in the work of all of its bodies. Some of the ways they can cooperate with the Council include:

  • acting as consultants on studies
  • preparing memoranda for the CoE’s Secretary General
  • making oral or written statements to the Parliamentary Assembly’s Committees and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities
  • participating in meetings

Some of the practical ways NGOs have been involved include:

  • preparing and drawing up some of the CoE’s Conventions, for example, the European Convention on the Legal Status of Migrant Workers and the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture.
  • providing information to the European Court of Human Rights to contribute to analysis of certain issues or as third parties to a case.
  • lodging collective complaints with the European Committee of Social Rights.

The Council has a permanent structure for cooperation with NGOs:

  • The annual Plenary Conference of NGOs decides on the year’s objectives
  • The Liaison Committee liaises with the CoE’s Secretariat, monitors NGOs meetings in specialist areas, encourages NGO participation, and organises the Plenary Conference and programme of work.

The Conference of INGOs is the collective name for Independent Non-Governmental Organisations that have been granted participatory status at the Council of Europe.