3 June 2014
Thematic debate on “The Role and Functioning of Non-governmental Organisations (NGOs) in the Council of Europe”
The paper, prepared ahead of the thematic debate on the role and functioning of NGOs in the Council of Europe, presents a mapping of Council of Europe interaction with national and international NGOs as well as proposals for the way ahead. Some examples illustrate the depth and variety of civil society contributions to the work of the Council of Europe, but are in no way exhaustive of this relationship.
Current practice of co-operation between the Council of Europe and NGOs
National and international NGOs, as well as civil society leaders, are deeply involved in the development and implementation of the Council of Europe’s policies, programmes and standards.
NGOs and Council of Europe bodies
For some years now, the President of the Conference of INGOs is invited to take the floor at the Ministerial Sessions of the Committee of Ministers. The Ministers’ Deputies hold regular exchanges of views with the President of the Conference of INGOs (GR-DEM 21 June 2012; Ministers’ Deputies 26 May 2010), NGO representatives participated in the Committee of Ministers thematic debates on “Safety of journalists” (12 December 2013) and “Violence against women” (19 March 2014), and representatives of religious communities, non-religious convictions and NGOs play an active role in the annual meetings of the Committee of Ministers on the religious dimension of intercultural dialogue. Representatives of national and international NGO are also invited to high-level conferences, such as the one on "Growing with children's rights" which took place on 27-28 March 2014 in Dubrovnik. Some Delegations participate in informal meetings convened by human rights NGOs prior to the Human Rights Meetings of the Ministers Deputies. Occasionally, the Committee of Ministers communicates Recommendations of the Parliamentary Assembly to the Conference of INGOs for information and possible comments1.
The interaction with the civil society is an important aspect of the work of the Secretary General. He has regular meetings with civil society representatives; his country visits include systematically meetings with NGOs, he receives and responds to frequent reports and requests from international and national NGOs. The field offices of the Council of Europe maintain regular contact with NGOs. The annual World Forum for Democracy has developed into a platform for exchange with civil society from Europe and all over the word. NGOs play also an important role in the implementation of the Council of Europe Action Plans. The Schools of political studies have now become a genuine network covering the whole of Eastern, South-Eastern Europe, the Caucasus as well as Tunisia and Morocco. In addition, the Secretary General is considering organising, on an annual basis, meetings with leaders of key Human Rights NGOs in Europe.
NGOs provide input to Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) reports and are in direct contact with members of the Assembly during country visits and the sessions in Strasbourg. Side-events and hearings with the participation of international and national NGOs contribute to the preparation of PACE reports or facilitate awareness-raising. A few examples from the last years illustrate this co-operation: The round table organised by the Conference of INGOs on “Supporting the wishes, demands and priorities of women in the Arab World” on 23 January 2013; the side-event convened by the ALDE group on “Parliamentarians protect civil society: how to prevent inappropriate restrictions on NGO activities in Europe” held on 26 June 2013; the hearing on “Sexual exploitation of girls” organised by the Parliamentary Network Women free from violence and the Network of Contact Parliamentarians to stop sexual violence against children on 29 January 2014 or the testimony of Edward Snowden at the hearing of the Legal Affairs and Human Rights Committee on “Mass surveillance” on 8 April 2014.
NGOs meet members of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities during the sessions in Strasbourg and the country visits, and contribute to the preparation of reports and events of the Congress. In addition, the Congress has established cooperation agreements with selected organisations which are active in the implementation of the Congress’ activities, for example the Conference of European Regional Legislative Assemblies or the Assembly of European Regions.
NGOs participate in different capacities in the proceedings before the European Court of Human Rights (applicants, third parties or reliable source of information)2. Moreover, NGOs are offered the possibility to submit communications to the Committee of Ministers in the framework of the supervision of the execution of judgments of the Court3. NGOs have also played an active role in the reform process of the Court, through participation in the Steering Committee on Human Rights and individual and collective response coordinated by the Conference of INGOs.
The Commissioner for Human Rights is in close contact with human rights defenders and civil society, meets them during his country visits and involves human rights NGOs in his thematic activities. In addition, he regularly organises round tables with human rights defenders, such as the one on “Human rights and the security sector” held in Kyiv on 30-31 May 2013.
The Venice Commission has established co-operation with the Conference of INGOs and in particular, since 2007, with the Conference’s Expert Council on NGO Law. The Commission receives input from civil society in the context of the preparation of its opinions and its Rapporteurs meet NGOs during their country visits. NGOs also participate in the consultations held by the Venice Commission and the OSCE-ODIHR, in the framework of the preparation/revision of joint guidelines on freedom of religion, freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association.
NGOs and standard-setting, monitoring and co-operation
Standard-setting activities benefit from civil society input through the participation of the Conference of INGOs in all Steering Committees (CM/Res(2011)24) which often also have national or international NGOs as observers. NGO representatives sit on expert groups, participate in hearings and the adopted texts reflect their contribution. NGOs have been particularly active on human rights issues, be it by enhancing victim protection in the Convention on action against trafficking in human beings, through the drafting of the Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, on measures to combat discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity (CM/Rec(2010)5) or Protocols 14, 14 bis, 15 and 16 amending the control system of the Convention. INGOs of and for people with disabilities were actively involved in the elaboration of the Recommendations on ensuring full inclusion of children and young persons with disabilities into society (CM/Rec(2013)2) and on ensuring full, equal and effective participation of persons with disabilities in culture, sports, tourism and leisure activities (CM/Rec(2013)3). Recently, broader consultations of civil society have been organised, for example during the preparation of the Recommendation on the protection of whistle-blowers (CM/Rec(2014)7). In the areas of freedom of expression and Internet governance, civil society provides input to ministerial conferences (including with dedicated civil society and youth events) and the Council of Europe participates in multi-stakeholder fora such as European Dialogue on Internet Governance which include a wide range of civil society organisations.
The monitoring by the Parliamentary Assembly and a number of monitoring mechanisms also rely on information received from NGOs. The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment has 25 years of experience working with NGOs. By announcing its country visits a year in advance, it facilitates the preparation of written submissions and meetings with NGOs during such visits. It is also constant practice for evaluation teams of the Group of States against Corruption to collect the views of NGOs during on-site visits. The additional protocol of 1995 to the European Social Charter (CETS No. 158) has institutionalised the participation of INGOs holding participatory status with the Council of Europe by providing for a system of collective complaints enabling INGOs to complain to the European Committee of Social Rights on the violations of the Charter. More than 100 such complaints have been submitted to the Committee under this procedure. NGOs send information to the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), the Committee of Experts of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (COMEX) and the Advisory Committee of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities prior to country visits, participate in meetings during the visits and submit comments when the follow-up given to recommendations is examined. ECRI and the COMEX involve NGOs in the round tables organised after the publication of their reports to generate dialogue between the authorities and civil society around the implementation of ECRI recommendations or the Charter evaluation report. ECRI has a working group on relations with civil society and specialised bodies in order to strengthen the link between country monitoring, policy recommendations and relations with civil society.
NGOs are key partners in the implementation of co-operation activities, be it at country, regional or pan European levels. The following is a selection only of examples. Human rights NGOs carry out trainings in the domestic application of the European Convention on Human Rights and the Revised Social Charter. NGOs implement community-led heritage projects for urban strategies for historic towns or the rehabilitation of common heritage of different communities as well as the trainings for election observation. Civil society is a key actor in the implementation of the Confidence-building Measures Programmes and in the field of prison reform, where NGOs cooperate in rehabilitation of prisoners and awareness-raising activities. At the European level, NGOs are driving forces for the implementation of the “No Hate Speech Movement” activities such as the European Action Days against Homophobia- and Transphobia on 17 May. NGOs have played an important role both at European and global level to promote the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combatting violence against women and domestic violence (CETS 210), including through cooperation on targeted projects. NGOs have been very active in the implementation of the Disability Action Plan 2006-2015. Moreover, through their publications and events, NGOs act as multipliers of Council of Europe standards and values all over Europe.
Institutional relations with NGOs
Participatory status for INGOs (CM/Res(2003)8) replaces since 2003 consultative status which was created back in 1952. It is granted to INGOs which are representative in a field of action of the Council of Europe, present in a significant number of European countries, capable of contributing actively to Council of Europe deliberations and activities and able to make know the work and achievements of the Organisation among European citizens. At present, 380 INGOs hold the participatory status. They are active in all fields of activity of the Council of Europe and include well known organisations like Amnesty International, the European Anti-Poverty Network or Education International as well as many other small and large associations, advocacy and professional organisations, social movements, networks and foundations. The INGOs enjoying participatory status can engage individually or collectively through the Conference of INGOs in the debates and work of the Council of Europe.
The status of partnership between the Council of Europe and national NGOs (CM/Res(2003)9) can be established with NGOs with which the Council of Europe has specific agreements for the implementation of programmes, projects or events within its programme of activities. At present, 15 NGOs from 7 countries have been registered on this list (DD(2011)892).
Many NGOs are acting as observers in Council of Europe steering committees and governance bodies.
A specific arrangement has been found for the Advisory Council on Youth, an ad hoc committee composed of 30 youth NGOs (national and international), selected every second year in a rotation system on the basis of their activity profile and outreach. Members of the Advisory Council are also full members of the Joint Council on Youth, where they co-operate with the member States on an equal basis. In its Resolution (2008) 23, the Committee of Ministers has described this “co-management” system as "unique and valuable”.
The INGOs with participatory status make up the Conference of INGOs, which constitutes civil society’s pillar in the Council of Europe “quadrilogue” with the Committee of Ministers, the Parliamentary Assembly and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities. The Conference of INGOs meets in Strasbourg in January and June, in the same week as the Parliamentary Assembly. It adopts resolutions and recommendations, carries out activities and co-operates in Council of Europe activities.
The thematic work of the Conference is carried out in the Committees on Human Rights; Democracy, Social Cohesion and Global Challenges; Education and Culture and the informal working groups reporting to the Committees. The Conference of INGOs created two instruments with the aim of contributing to an enabling environment for NGOs: The Expert Council on NGO Law4 examines national NGO legislation and its implementation and provides advice on how to bring it into line with Council of Europe standards and European good practice. The Code of Good Practice for Civil Participation in the Decision-making Process5 serves as guideline in a number of member States. The Conference of INGOs is also active in the field of strengthening civil society and enhancing civil dialogue such as the Action Plan for Azerbaijan6 and the immediate measures package for Ukraine7.
The way ahead
In the light of the above, the Committee of Ministers may consider the following questions:
Is the level of interaction of the Council of Europe with NGOs satisfactory today? If not, how can it be improved?
Is there need for stepping up dialogue between the Committee of Ministers and NGOs?
- Organise NGO fora prior to Ministerial Sessions, Conferences of specialised Ministers and high-level Conferences?
- Encourage NGOs to organise side-events in connections with these meetings?
- Invite relevant NGO leaders to the thematic debates of the Ministers’ Deputies?
- Invite civil society representatives to meetings of the Ministers-Deputies Rapporteur Groups when discussing future action?
- Organise meetings for Delegations and human rights NGOs prior to the Ministers’ Deputies human rights meetings on the execution of judgments?
- Inform in writing NGOs that have submitted communications to the CM in the framework of the supervision of the execution of the Court’s judgments about the decisions taken by the CM in the related cases?
- Organise in-country encounters of the Chairman of the Committee of Ministers with civil society on a priority theme of its work programme?
How to facilitate access by NGOs to the Council of Europe and outreach to civil society in the member States?
- Provide information on monitoring visits well in advance?
- Prepare a manual and/or a “one-stop shop” website providing guidance to NGOs on possibilities for interaction with the Council of Europe?
- Provide NGOs with a room equipped with computers during session weeks?
- Participate in major civil society events outside Strasbourg?
Is there need to further improve the relevance of INGOs enjoying participatory status?
- Prepare guidelines for the implementation of Res(2003)8 with regard to the conditions to be met by INGOs to qualify for the status?
1 See the decision taken at the 1170th meeting of the Deputies concerning Recommendation 2013(2013) “Parliaments united in combating sexual violence against children: mid-term review of the ONE in FIVE Campaign”
2 See CDCJ (2010)12 for more information
3 Rule 9.2 of the Rules of the Committee of Ministers for the supervision of the execution of judgments and of the terms of friendly settlements.