Human Rights in the Council of Europe
One of the main concerns of the Council of Europe is the protection of human rights. The greatest achievement in this context is the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), a treaty under international law that was adopted in 1950 and entered into force in 1953. To date 46 European states have become parties to the Convention. Austria has been a party since 1958 and the Convention has the same status as the Constitution. It protects important rights and freedoms, e.g. the right to life, the right to liberty and security, the right to a fair trial, private and family life, the right to freedom of thought and religion, the right to freedom of assembly and the prohibition of torture. Further rights have been added in Protocols and the death penalty has also been completely abolished.
All states that have become party to the ECHR undertake to guarantee the rights and freedoms contained in it. The European Court of Human Rights monitors compliance with the Convention. Individuals of any nationality and also states can appeal to the Court if they believe that their rights have been violated by a state party once they have exhausted the legal remedies within the state. The Court’s decisions are binding for all states parties. Thus all decisions that find the Republic of Austria guilty of human rights violations are implemented in 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 to legislation or training for the judiciary and police.
The increase in the number of member states of the Council of Europe from 23 in 1989 to 46 today and the marked rise in the number of individual complaints submitted to the European Court of Human Rights from 4,000 complaints in 1989 to 50,500 in 2006 made it necessary to reform the Court so that it could maintain its function as the central instance for the protection of human rights in Europe. In May 2005 the Committee of Ministers therefore adopted Protocol Number 14 to the ECHR amending the control system of the Convention. Austria ratified this Protocol in December 2005 and it requires only the ratification by Russia for it to enter into force. Moreover, a Group of Wise Persons was set up to elaborate recommendations for further reform of the Court. These recommendations are currently being discussed. Austria is of the opinion that access by individuals to the Court should be retained in future at all costs.
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 among the most important human rights agreements by the Council of Europe. Austria has acceded to all these agreements. 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 has the task of identify shortcomings in the protection of human rights, supporting states in improving human rights protection and heightening public awareness of human rights. In May 2007 Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg paid Austria a one-week visit. His report and recommendations will be published in November 2007.