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FOCUS March 1996 Volume 3

Council of Europe: Lessons for Asia and the Pacific

A Pan-Asia-Pacific intergovernmental organization will remain it seems to be a distant future if one is thinking of the Council of Europe as a model. This is more so in relation to the establishment of a human rights mechanism for the region. The United Nations organized three workshops in Manila (1990), Jakarta (1993), Seoul (1994) and Kathmandu (1996) respectively to discuss the possibility of setting up a regional human rights mechanism for Asia-Pacific. In 1994, the ASEAN Institute of Strategic and International Studies organized the Colloquium on Human Rights in Manila to discuss, among others, the issue of a sub-regional mechanism. While most States in the region would not formally oppose the idea of having an Asia-Pacific human rights mechanism in support of the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action, there is a significant reluctance on the part of many of them to start the actual setting up of the institution.

The Council of Europe is a forty-five year old institution that was established as a mechanism for preventing the horrors of the second world war. It is an organization of European governments. The original members then wanted to create an organization which will bring like-minded European States into closer association. The like-mindedness refers to subscription to the "common heritage of their peoples and the true source of individual freedom, political liberty and the rule of law, principles which form the basis of all genuine democracies". In its Statute, every member State must accept the principles of the rule of law and the enjoyment by all persons within its jurisdiction of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

With the Cold War, Eastern and Central European States were excluded from its membership. But with the end of the Cold War, its membership rose from 23 to 39 as Eastern and Central European States became members. If the 3 remaining applicant-States are admitted, the Council of Europe should have reached the limit of its geographical enlargement.

The Council of Europe is not related to the European Union, the latter institution is the one engaged in the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) that is due to be held in March in Bangkok. The Council of Europe, with headquarters in Strasbourg, France, has three main bodies: (1) the Committee of Ministers as its decision-making body; (2) the Parliament Assembly as its deliberative body; and (3) the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe a consultative body representing local and regional authorities. The members of all three bodies are government representatives of member States.

The Council of Europe's human rights program has the following characteristics:

a. treaty-based - there are a number of treaties that have been drawn up on the human rights question such as the European Convention on Human Rights, European Social Charter, Convention on the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment;
b. treaty-based implementation systems - Under the European Convention on Human Rights, States and individuals can file complaints against States before the European Commission on Human Rights , with the final decision of the complaints being made by either the European Court of Human Rights or the Committee of Ministers. Under the European Social Charter, member-States are obligated to file reports of compliance with their responsibilities under the agreement. Under the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, a committee of independent and impartial experts, empowered to visit places where persons are deprived of liberty by a public authority, submits confidential reports to the States concerned. Failure of the part of concerned States to comply with the committee's recommendations will result in a public statement on the matter;
c. cooperation and assistance activities - in order to develop and consolidate democratic structures activities such as training for administrative personnel on legislative reforms and for the members of the legal profession on various fields that will promote the rule of law and respect for human rights are provided;
d. policy of continuing review - as demanded by the changing situation in Europe, the human rights conventions have been supplemented by protocols and amendments, while new conventions are being prepared on such issues as biology and medicine. The human rights program is thus also adjusting to the new developments;
e. reaffirmation of support for human rights - summit meetings among the member-States affirm the priority given to human rights. The latest of such meetings is the Vienna Summit of October 1993;
f. concern for human rights situations outside Europe - by taking a stand on flagrant violations of human rights which are considered to be international problems of common concern, the Council of Europe raises its concern to the countries involved which are not members of Council of Europe.

There seems to be a relative success of the human rights program as the Council of Europe develops even further its activities. An increasing number of complaints have been filed with its human rights bodies. Since 1954, 25,000 individual complaints have been filed with the European Commission on Human Rights. Since 1959, the European Court of Human Rights has rendered 490 judgments.

The Council of Europe is a significant regional institution that promotes common action on economic, social, cultural, scientific, legal and administrative matters and in the maintenance and further realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms. The only exception to its wide-ranging competencies is in the military field. With membership virtually covering all States in western, central and eastern Europe, it may truly be said to be the entity that represents all of Europe.

Asia-Pacific certainly has a character different from that of Europe. It has diversity in economic, social, cultural and political fields which does not parallel Europe. But more importantly, governments in this region have not unequivocally expressed the desire to have a structure that will enhance and realize common values and aspirations relating to the social, political and cultural well-being of the people in the region. Human rights, for one, is still seen as much too controversial to be given a regional push toward regional institutional approach in their promotion, protection and realization in accordance with international standards.

Despite these differences, however, the experience of the Council of Europe is worth examining as it certainly provides an example of how States in one region can move together in one direction to fulfill essential values such as human rights.

The above presentation on the Council of Europe is derived from the lecture entitled "Democracy and the Rule of Law from the Viewpoint of the Council of Europe" given by Mr. Guy de Vel, Director of the Legal Affairs of the Council of Europe, in a meeting held in Osaka city, Japan in November last year. HURIGHTS OSAKA sponsored the activity.