Commissioner on Human Rights: a general mandate with a specific component on defenders

In April 2007, the Parliamentarian Assembly of the Council of Europe reiterated that the unimpeded work of human rights defenders is crucial for the protection and promotion of human rights in Europe

CM Recommendation on the legal status of NGOs in Europe, which defines the minimum standards to be respected concerning the creation, management and the general activities of NGOs in CoE member states and recalls that NGOs should enjoy the rights to freedom of expression and all other universally and regionally guaranteed rights and freedoms applicable to them.

The CoE has a unique arsenal of legally binding instruments which is backed by a system of control/monitoring providing for access for human rights defenders to their systems : the European Court of Human Rights, the Anti-torture Committee (CPT), the Advisory Committee (of the Framework Convention for the protection of national minorities) and the European Committee of Social Rights who deal with collective complaints. The (non treaty-based) European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) is also particularly relevant for human rights defenders.

A general mandate with a specific component on defenders: the Commissioner on Human Rights

The Commissioner for Human Rights is an independent institution within the Council of Europe created at the second Summit of Council of Europe Heads of States and Governments on October 10 and 11, 1997 in Strasburg ; his mandate is to promote the awareness of and respect for human rights in 47 Council of Europe member States. Since 2008, the Commissioner is also in charge of contributing to improve the protection of human rights defenders and to promote their activities.

On May 7, 1999, the Committee of Ministers adopted a resolution providing for a Commissioner. The resolution defines the Commissioner’s mandate. The first Commissioner, Mr. Alvaro Gil-Robles, held this position from October 15, 1999 to March 31, 2006. The present Commissioner, Mr. Thomas Hammarberg, came into office on April 1, 2006.

The Commissioner’s general mandate is to:

- foster the effective observance of human rights, and assist member states in the implementation of Council of Europe human rights standards;
promote education in and awareness of human rights in Council of Europe member states;
- identify possible shortcomings in the law and practice concerning human rights;
facilitate the activities of national ombudsperson institutions and other human rights structures; and
- provide advice and information regarding the protection of human rights across the region.

The Commissioner co-operates with a broad range of international and national institutions as well as human rights monitoring mechanisms. The Office’s most important inter-governmental partners include the United Nations and its specialised offices, the European Union, and the OSCE. The Office also cooperates closely with leading human rights NGOs, universities and think-tanks.

Dialogue with Governements and country visits

The Commissioner seeks to engage in permanent dialogue with Council of Europe member states and conducts official country missions for a comprehensive evaluation of the human rights situation. The missions typically include meetings with the highest representatives of government, parliament, the judiciary, as well as leading members of human rights protection institutions and the civil society. Following country visits, the Commissioner publishes and widely disseminates a report, containing both an analysis of human rights practices and detailed recommendations about possible ways of improvement.

A few years after the official visit to a country, the Commissioner or his Office carries out a follow-up visit to assess the progress made in implementing the recommendations. The Commissioner subsequently issues a follow-up report, which is also widely publicised. Last but not least, the Commissioner conducts contact visits to countries or regions in order to strengthen relations with the authorities and to examine one or a number of problem areas, albeit without issuing general reports.

Thematic recommendations and awareness-raising

The Commissioner for Human Rights is also mandated to provide advice and information on the protection of human rights and the prevention of human rights violations. When the Commissioner considers it appropriate, his Office issues recommendations regarding a specific human rights issue in a single member State. Either on the request of national bodies or on his own initiative, the Commissioner may also give opinions on draft laws and specific practices.

The Commissioner is further mandated to promote awareness of human rights in Council of Europe member states. To this end, the Commissioner’s Office organises and co-organises seminars and events on various human rights themes, and seeks to engage in permanent dialogue with governments, civil society organisations and educational institutions in order to improve the publics’ awareness of Council of Europe human rights standards.

Promoting the development of national human rights structures

The Commissioner closely cooperates with national Ombudsmen, National Human Rights Institutions and other structures entrusted to protect human rights. The Commissioner also maintains close working relations with the European Union’s Ombudsman and organises biennial roundtables with the Ombudsmen and National Human Rights Institutions of Council of Europe member states. In countries where these do not exist or are not fully developed, the Commissioner strongly supports their establishment and effective operation.

The reinforcement of the role of the Commissioner in terms of protection of human rights defenders

Since February 2008, the Commissioner’s role has been reinforced through the “Committee of Ministers’ Declaration on Council of Europe action to improve the protection of human rights defenders and promote their activities”. Its adoption marked the strong commitment of Council of Europe member States to offer effective protection to human rights defenders and their work, especially in situations of danger. It further calls upon Council of Europe bodies and institutions to pay special attention to issues concerning human rights defenders and their work.

Furthermore, the Declaration invites the Commissioner for Human Rights to strengthen his role and capacity of his Office in order to provide strong and effective protection for human rights defenders by:

- continuing to act upon information received from human rights defenders and other relevant sources, including ombudsmen or national human rights institutions;
- continuing to meet with a broad range of defenders during his country visits and to report publicly on the situation of human rights defenders;
- intervening, in the manner the Commissioner deems appropriate, with the competent authorities, in order to assist them in looking for solutions, in accordance with their obligations, to the problems which human rights defenders may face, especially in serious situations where there is a need for urgent action;
- working in close co-operation with other intergovernmental organisations and institutions, in particular the OSCE/ODIHR focal point for human rights defenders, the European Union, the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders and other existing mechanisms.

The Committee of Ministers’ Declaration is the outcome of the work of the Group of Specialists on Human Rights Defenders and the Colloquy “Protecting and Supporting Human Rights Defenders in Europe” held in Strasbourg in November 2006.

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