One of the first realisations of improved relations between the Western European countries after World War II was the Council of Europe. Its Statute was signed in London in May 1949 by ten countries: Belgium, Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
The Council of Europe is an inter-governmental organisation, where the governments co-operate: the Committee of Ministers is the organ which acts on behalf of the Council (Article 13). The Consultative Assembly has had to work hard to be secure in the right to have its members chosen by the national Parliaments and to be accepted under the name of Parliamentary Assembly.
Three Nordic countries were among the signatories in 1949 and Iceland joined the Council of Europe the next year. It took until 1989 for Finland to join, as the last among Western European nations.
The fall of the Berlin Wall led to a rapid expansion of the Council of Europe, which has become Pan-European in character. There are now 46 member states, comprising almost the entire continent.
The general aim of the Council of Europe is to achieve a greater unity between its members for the purpose of safeguarding and realising the ideals and principles which are their common heritage and facilitating their economic and social progress; Statute, Article 1(a).
The Statute, Article 1(b), allows for agreements and common action in economic, social, cultural, scientific, legal and administrative matters, but the Council is known primarily for its achievements “in the maintenance and further realisation of human rights and fundamental freedoms”.
Article 3 lays down the provisions for membership of the Council of Europe:
“Every member of the Council of Europe must accept the principles of the rule of law and of the enjoyment by all persons within its jurisdiction of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and collaborate sincerely and effectively in the realisation of the Council as specified in Chapter I.”
Recently the Parliamentary Assembly, in its April 2007 Resolution 1547, elaborated that membership is based on three pillars:
· the enjoyment by all persons within the jurisdiction of its member states of human rights and fundamental freedoms,
· the consolidation of the rule of law and
· the existence of a genuine pluralistic democracy, based on the spiritual and moral values which are the common European heritage.
The Council of Europe has become the guardian of human rights, democracy and respect for the rule of law in Europe.
Among the main control mechanisms of the Council of Europe are:
the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (including the European Court of Human Rights),
the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment,
the revised European Social Charter and
the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.
The influx of former Communist states from Central and Eastern Europe has put a severe strain on the capacity and standards of the Council of Europe, including the European Court of Human Rights. But at least the improvement of human rights, democracy and respect for the rule of law are firmly on the agenda of the Old Continent as a whole.