The Council of Europe
The Council of Europe is an intergovernmental organisation which aims:
- to protect and promote human rights, pluralist democracy and the rule of law;
- to promote awareness and encourage the development of Europe's cultural identity and diversity;
- to seek solutions to problems facing European society (discrimination against minorities, xenophobia, intolerance, environmental protection, human cloning, Aids, drugs, organised crime, violence against women, corruption etc.);
- to help consolidate democratic stability in Europe by supporting political, legislative and constitutional reform.
The Council of Europe has 47 member states in Europe (including all EU members) except Belarus.
The Council of Europe is composed of the following institutions:
- the Committee of Ministers (the Permanent Representative (= Ambassador) of the Member State holding the chairmanship, presides over the weekly meetings of the Committee of the Ministers' Deputies),
- the Parliamentary Assembly,
- the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities,
- the Secretary General and
- the Human Rights Court and the Human Rights Commissioner.
Activities and Role of the Council of Europe
The core mandate of the Council of Europe is the protection of human rights and the promotion of pluralistic democracy and the rule of law. The Council’s sphere of work covers all aspects of European society except defence. Thus the Council’s working programme includes human rights, the media, cooperation in the field of law, social cohesion, health, education, culture, the maintenance of common heritage such as historic buildings, sports, youth, local democracy and cross-border cooperation, environment and regional planning.
Special priorities the Council of Europe has set itself in its current work include the reform of the protection system of the European Convention on Human Rights (while preserving the right of individual petition), the promotion of democratisation in the new democracies and providing assistance to help them achieve full freedom of opinion and information. It contributes to the actual realization of these essential aims by maintaining a local presence (e.g. offices established by the Council of Europe headed by representatives of the Secretary General and information centres) and monitoring compliance with the terms of accession through the Parliamentary Assembly, the Committee of Ministers and missions by members of the Parliamentary Assembly, as well as through visits by experts. This is supplemented by high-level visits by the Secretary General and the President of the Parliamentary Assembly.
The underlying idea behind the work undertaken by the Council of Europe is still to help establish general respect for its fundamental values by elaborating the relevant uniform legal basis. The European Conventions and Agreements worked out by the Council (more than 200) thus serve each Member State as a basis for harmonising and amending their own legislation. In its capacity as a source of legal instruments the Council of Europe is thus highly useful to the European Union, too. Currently, the accession of the European Union to the European Convention on Human Rights is being prepared. Some conventions and agreements are also open for adoption by non-member states. Moreover, the results of studies and activities are made available to governments and thus foster co-operation and social progress in Europe.
The Council of Europe also adopts Partial Agreements, a form of "variable geometry" co-operation, which allow the interested states to carry out a specific activity of common interest with the consent of other members.
The Council is financed by the governments of member states whose contributions to the organisation's budget are calculated in relation to their population and wealth. The 2013 budget is approximately EUR 244 million. The Austrian contribution for 2013 amounts to approximately EUR 4.17 million, which is equivalent to 1.75% of the organisation’s overall budget.
Conferences of Specialised Ministers
The Council of Europe periodically organises conferences of specialised ministers (for justice, education, family affairs, health, environment, local authorities, migration, equality between women and men, labour, mass media, culture, sport, youth, etc.). These conferences analyse the major problems arising in their sectors and foster ongoing contact between ministries dealing with the same subjects in Member States. Projects to be implemented jointly are worked out, and activities for the Council`s work programme proposed.
A Platform for Non-Governmental Organisations
By granting consultative status to over 400 non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the Council of Europe is building a real partnership with civil society representatives. NGOs are involved in intergovernmental activities through various consultation arrangements (including discussions and colloquies), and dialogue on major social issue is encouraged between members of parliament and private associations.
Austria and the Council of Europe
Active commitment in the Council of Europe has always been of high importance for Austria, with a special - still ongoing - emphasis on Human Rights, cultural activities, education, and social matters such as Children’s Rights, Women’s Rights and the Freedom from Violence.
The Council of Europe’s Centre for modern languages in Graz was created through a partial agreement of the Council of Europe in 1994. The centre provides a base as a meeting point for teachers, trainers, program-organisers, authors and experts, which work in the field of providing education, establishing syllabuses, evaluation and language-teaching.
The Council of Europe is the international organisation, in which Austrians could distinguish themselves as in no other. Austria provided three Secretary-Generals (Lujo Toncic-Sorinj 1969 - 1974, Franz Karasek 1979- 1984, Walter Schwimmer 1999-2004), two presidents of the Parliamentary Assembly (Peter Schieder 2002-2005, Karl Czernetz 1975-1978) and two times the President of the Congresses of Local and Regional Authorities (Herwig van Staa 2002-2004 and 2012-2014). From 2002 to 2004 the three most important positions were held by Austrian (Schwimmer, Schieder, van Staa), a unique constellation within the organisation.
Austrian Chairmanship of the Council of Europe
On 14 November 2013, Austria assumed the chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in Strasburg, which rotates every 6 months between the Member States. Foreign Minister Kurz spoke before the Parliamentary Assembly in January as well as in April and answered questions raised by the delegates. Furthermore, Chancellor Faymann and Federal President Fischer sought the dialogue with the Parliamentary Assembly. Minister Rupprechter appeared before the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities in March.
The end of the Austrian chairmanship was marked by the annual meeting of the Committee of Ministers on May 6 2014, which took place in Vienna.
On the basis of the numerous instruments and mechanisms of the Council of Europe, Austria was actively engaging itself for an improved and sustainable implementation of European standards in the core areas of the Council. This engagement primarily focussed on thematic areas, in which the legal and political instruments of the Council of Europa are of particular importance and topicality:
- combatting trafficking in human beings;
- defending the freedom of expression and of the media, in particular on the internet as well as the protection of journalists;
- protecting women against violence;
- issues of social cohesion, in particular those referring to the situation of persons with disabilities, and the necessity to react to the realities of our lives through the best possible training and education to democratic citizenship.
In the preparation of the chairmanship, a priority paper was elaborated to illustrate the Austrian focal areas. This document was devised with the participation of the respective federal line ministries, as well as with the Länder, and was brought to the attention of the federal government. It has been circulated as official document of the Council of Europe. In support of these priorities the Austrian chairmanship was accompanied by a comprehensive calendar of events. Numerous conferences, scientific symposia and campaigns took place in Austria as well as in Strasburg, in order to involve experts, decision-makers and civil society in the discussions of important topics of the Austrian chairmanship.
During its six-month chairmanship from November 2013 until May 2014, Austria organised a series of cultural events in Strasburg, including participation of Austrian artists.