Part 7 in a series by Marissa Goldfaden as she works her way through “Introduction to minority rights, regional human rights mechanisms, and minority rights advocacy,” a new online course offered to the public free of charge by Minority Rights Group International. The course’s stated objectives are to introduce concepts of minority rights and discrimination, develop awareness and understanding of international and regional mechanisms for minority rights, and improve practical skills in lobbying and advocacy.


European human rights mechanisms

The Council of Europe, made up of 47 member states, was founded in 1949 with the aim of achieving greater unity in Europe. It passes conventions and charters that recommend actions that its members should take. In some important areas, principally human rights, the Council has legal jurisdiction.

The Council has drafted and ratified a number of important instruments for the protection of human rights and minority rights:

The Council is responsible for the institutions and monitoring committees that work to ensure state compliance with the following legal instruments:

Institution/Committee Role
European Court of Human Rights Rules on individual or state applications alleging violations of the rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights. It is the highest European court for human rights and fundamental freedoms (see section 5).
European Committee of Social Rights Judges whether states conform, in law and in practice, with the provisions of the European Social Charter.
Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities Evaluates the implementation of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. The role of the Committee is to examine state reports on minorities as well as other information, and use that information to monitor the performance of state parties.
Committee of Experts of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages Monitors the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. The Committee evaluates how the Charter is applied by a state party, and, where necessary, makes recommendations for improvements in its legislation, policy and practice.

All Council of Europe member states are party to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and new members are expected to ratify the Convention at the earliest opportunity.

The ECHR sets out the following fundamental rights and freedoms:

  • right to life
  • prohibition of torture
  • prohibition of slavery and forced labor
  • right to liberty and security
  • right to a fair trial
  • no punishment without law
  • right to respect for private and family life
  • freedom of thought, conscience and religion
  • freedom of expression
  • freedom of assembly and association
  • right to marry
  • right to an effective remedy
  • prohibition of discrimination

The Convention established the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) to ensure its observance. The Court deals with cases brought by individuals against states, as well as inter-state cases. All alleged violations of human rights are referred directly to the Court. The parties to a case must abide by the judgments of the Court and take all necessary measures to comply with them.

The European Social Charter guarantees economic and social rights, such as those pertaining to housing, health, education, employment, legal and social protection, free movement of persons and non-discrimination. The following rights are given particular weight within the Charter document:

  • right to work
  • right to organize
  • right to bargain collectively
  • right to social security
  • right to social and medical assistance
  • right to the social, legal and economic protection of the family
  • right to protection and assistance for migrant workers and their families

The Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities is a legally binding instrument that aims to protect the existence of national minorities within the territories of the parties. It seeks to promote the full and effective equality of national minorities by creating conditions that enable them to preserve and develop their culture and to retain their identity.

The Convention sets out principles relating to national minorities in public life, such as:

  • freedom of peaceful assembly
  • freedom of association
  • freedom of expression
  • freedom of thought, conscience and religion
  • access to the media

as well as in the range of freedoms relating to language and education. MRG notes that Turkey and France have not signed up to the Convention.

The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages aims to protect and promote the regional or minority languages of Europe. It has 24 signatories. It was adopted to maintain and develop Europe’s cultural traditions and sets out the principles of a) respect for the geographical area of each language and b) the need for promotion, facilitation and/or encouragement of the use of regional or minority languages in speech and writing and in public and private life. The Charter also sets out a number of specific measures to promote the use of regional or minority languages in the fields of education, justice, administrative authorities and public services, media, cultural activities and facilities, economic and social activities, and trans-frontier exchanges.

The ECHR contains one specific reference to minorities in Article 14, which reads:

“The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, color, language, religion, political or other option, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.”

Article 14 is subject to an ‘ambit requirement,’ meaning that the circumstances in which it can be applied are limited to the scope of ‘the rights and freedoms set forth in this Convention.’ Therefore, the Article can only be invoked if the situation comes under another Convention right. Protocol 12 to the ECHR extends the guarantee of non-discrimination in Article 14 to ‘any right set forth by law.’

Article 1 of Protocol 12 provides that:

(1) The enjoyment of any right set forth by law shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, color, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status (emphasis added)

(2) No one shall be discriminated against by any public authority on any ground such as those mentioned in paragraph 1.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) was set up in 1973 with the aim of improving relations between Eastern and Western Europe. Today, it has 56 participating states and is concerned with conflict prevention, crisis management, and post-conflict rehabilitation. The post of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities is designed to identify and seek early resolution of ethnic tensions that might endanger peace, stability, or friendly relations between OSCE participating states. In formulating advice and recommendations, the High Commissioner uses international human rights standards as a basis. All OSCE participating states are also bound by the political commitments related to the protection and promotion of minority rights set out in the 1990 Document of the Copenhagen Meeting of the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) is the specialized institution of the OSCE dealing with elections, human rights, and democratization. Of particular interest is its work on Roma and Sinti issues to promote the full integration of Roma and Sinti groups into the societies in which they live.