What is the Council of Europe?

There’s a geek brouhaha stirring over a Council of Europe proposal that would guarantee the “right of reply” to anyone who’s been criticized in an online medium—like a newspaper Web site or a blog—that’s registered in Europe. What’s the Council of Europe, and how much clout does it really have?

Inspired by Winston Churchill’s vision of a democratic “European Family,” the Council of Europe was founded in 1949 for the high-minded, albeit vague, purpose of “safeguarding and realising the ideals and principles which are [the members’] common heritage, and facilitating their economic and social progress.” The council’s chief responsibility to is to draft conventions and treaties, which are then sent to the members for state-by-state ratification; a member is not bound by a council treaty unless its national legislature approves the document. If a treaty is ratified, each nation is individually responsible for enforcing the stipulations within its borders. (Which means bloggers and other sorts who wish to avoid “right of reply” can simply register their Web sites in non-ratifying—or non-European—countries.)

The organization’s most famous treaty may still be the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Signed in 1950, the convention established the European Court of Human Rights, which handles complaints from individual citizens about human rights abuses; member nations are expected to abide by the court’s rulings, under possible penalty of being expelled from the council. (Click here for a list of recent judgments.) More recent treaties have focused on the rights of parents to have contact with their children and on drug testing in sports. The organization’s Council of Ministers, made up of representatives from each member’s ministry of foreign affairs, decides what policy goals to pursue.

The council, which is headquartered in Strasbourg, France, also engages in a fair amount of diplomatic ceremony, issuing declarations in support of oppressed peoples, condemning military action, and expressing sorrow after natural disasters. The Parliamentary Assembly, composed of 291 representatives drawn from each member’s parliament, is charged with handling most of the council’s honorary business.

The current membership roster stands at 45 nations, up from the initial 10. Once limited to Western European nations, the council expanded rapidly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. New members must prove they are committed to democracy and democratic institutions and adhere to a set of human rights guidelines, including the abolition of the death penalty. Members are occasionally suspended if they run afoul of the council’s standards. Greece, for example, was given the temporary boot during a stretch of military rule, between 1967 and 1974. Currently, Lichtenstein is facing a possible wrist slap for altering its constitution to put even more power in the hands of Prince Hans-Adam II.

Even European political junkies can be forgiven for knowing little about the council’s inner workings, given the plethora of like-named organizations on the Continent. The Council of Europe is often confused with the European Council, a body of European Union leaders that gathers at least twice a year to debate and decide the EU’s course. To muddle matters even more, there’s also the Council of the European Union, or “Council of Ministers,” which serves as a sort of EU legislature. Next question?