Human Rights and the Council of Europe

One of the main objectives of the Council of Europe is the protection of human rights. The greatest achievement in this regard is the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR), an international treaty which was adopted in 1950 and entered into force in 1953. Up to now 47 European States have ratified the Convention, Austria did so in 1958. The Convention has the rank of constitutional law in Austria. It protects important rights and freedoms, e.g. the right to life, the right to liberty and security, the right to a fair trial, the right to respect for private and family life, the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, the right to freedom of assembly and the prohibition of torture. Further rights have been added in separate Protocols and the death penalty has also been abolished.

Contracting Parties undertake to secure these rights and freedoms to everyone within their jurisdiction. The European Court of Human Rights monitors that the Convention rights are respected by the Parties. Both individuals of any nationality and States can appeal to the Court if they believe that their rights have been violated by a Contracting Party once all domestic remedies have been exhausted. The Court’s decisions are binding for all Contracting Parties. Consequently each judgment which holds that there has been a violation of one or more Convention Rights needs to be implemented by Austria, for example through the payment of compensation. The Court’s decisions are also used by the Federal Government as an important instrument for improving human rights protection in Austria through amendments of legal provisions or training programmes for the judiciary and police.

The Council of Europe has 47 Member States and the ECHR is open to 800 million people. This led to a significant increase of applications to the Court. In recent years the backlog of complaints has risen constantly. By an on-going reform process and especially internal measures to increase the efficiency of the Court this situation has improved and the backlog been reduced. Additional measures have entered into force in summer 2012 so that it can be expected that the backlog will be further reduced significantly. Although substantive progress has been achieved in recent years, the reform process must be continued. Austria has always attached - and continues to do so - the highest importance to the right of individual petition, which is the cornerstone of the Convention system and guarantees the protection of the human rights not secured at the national level. Ultimately only full respect for human rights by the Member States and a better implementation of the Court’s judgments will lead to a sustainable reduction of applications and the success of the reform process.

Apart from the European Court of Human Rights, the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the European Social Charter are important human rights agreements of the Council of Europe. Austria has acceded to all of them. The monitoring and visiting mechanisms in all of these agreements provide the Council of Europe with an important network of instruments to monitor the human rights situation in Europe. The office of the Commissioner for Human Rights created in 1999 also plays a vital role. He seeks to engage in permanent dialogue with Member States, continually raising awareness about human rights issues, and promoting the development of national human rights structures. In June 2012 the Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, visited Austria – Report and Recommendations.