The Council of Europe is an intergovernmental organisation with 47 member states who work together to establish and implement common standards on human rights, democracy and the rule of law. The UK held the Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers, the Council of Europe’s decision-making body, from 7 November 2011 to 23 May 2012. The overarching theme of our chairmanship was the promotion and protection of human rights.
Our key priority during our chairmanship was the reform of the European Court of Human Rights. The Court had a backlog of approximately 150,000 applications and needed help to ensure that it focused on the most important cases and was supported by better implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights at national level.
The Brighton Declaration was agreed on 20 April, following several months of negotiation. This sets out a series of concrete reforms and re-affirms member states’ commitments to the convention and agreement that the primary responsibility for guaranteeing human rights rests with the governments, parliaments and courts of the member states.
We are now working to secure the effective implementation of the Brighton Declaration. By January 2013, the court’s backlog had fallen to 128,000 applications.
Another priority during our chairmanship was support for the rule of law. On 2 March, the UK held a conference at Lancaster House, in partnership with the Venice Commission and the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law. The Venice Commission is now developing a checklist for governments on how to ensure compliance with the rule of law, and practical guidelines which will add value to the work of policy-makers and legislators drafting and passing laws across Europe.
Also in March, the UK’s then Equality Minister, Lynne Featherstone, hosted a conference in Strasbourg on combating discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. The conference provided an opportunity to share best practice on tackling discrimination in education, the workplace and sport, as well as tackling prejudice-based violence and hate crimes against LGBT people, and steps to advance transgender equality. Since then, the Committee of Ministers has discussed further how to take forward these issues in Europe and is preparing to review the implementation of its pioneering standards in this field. The UK is also a donor to the Council of Europe’s LGBT project, which is working in partnership with European governments to help reform public attitudes, legislation and practice.
Freedom of expression on the Internet was another area we addressed during our chairmanship. The Committee of Ministers agreed a four-year strategy on Internet governance, working in cooperation with governments, the private sector and NGOs. The UK is a strong supporter of the Council of Europe’s Cybercrime Convention, and for the second year is contributing to the Council’s Global Project on Cybercrime.
On 8 June, the UK signed the Council of Europe’s Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence. This groundbreaking convention goes further than any other international instrument in recognising and dealing with all forms of violence against women and domestic violence. It accords with the Government’s strong commitment to combating violence against women and promoting women’s rights more broadly.
The Council of Europe appointed a new Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr Nils Muižnieks, in April. Since his appointment he has conducted country-monitoring visits to Italy, Portugal, Austria and Finland, and has issued over 20 statements on human rights concerns in Council of Europe member states.