What are meant by human rights?

Human rights are rights that are recognised and guaranteed by a number of international legal instruments. Enjoying rights also means having duties. You cannot exercise your rights without due regard to other people’s rights.

Most human rights, as guaranteed by treaties, require strict legal interpretations as to what they do and do not cover. Hence Committees and Courts have provided general comments and rulings on a number of different rights, setting out what they actually mean.

The enforcement and limits of human rights

Human rights are granted on paper but none of us can enjoy them if individuals are unaware of their own rights and similarly, if they are not implemented, monitored and protected. The various human rights instruments set out that state parties undertake to respect, protect and fulfill the rights of the treaty in question.

Council of Europe - flagship institution of Europe’s regional human rights framework

One of the most important regional international institutions and a fundamental instrument in ensuring human rights is the Council of Europe, which is a political organisation, founded in 1949, to defend the principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Membership is open to all European states which undertake to abide by the organisation’s principles. At present the Council of Europe has 47 member states. All EU Member States are members of the Council of Europe. Over the last 60 years, the Council of Europe has played a significant role in expanding and improving the protection of fundamental rights in Europe.

Two-bladed sword: general civil and political rights (1.) and specific social rights protection (2.)

As pointed out above, enforcement is key in respect of protecting human rights. The European human rights legal instruments are therefore provided with watchdog instruments;

  1. General civil and political rights protection: The most well-known Fundamental Rights tool issued by the Council of Europe is the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR), launched in 1950.

The European Court on Human Rights) is an international court set up in 1959. It rules on individual or state applications alleging violations of the civil and political rights set out in the Convention.

The Court’s case law makes the Convention a powerful living instrument for meeting new challenges and consolidating the rule of law and democracy in Europe. Its judgments are legally binding and therefore often seen as more effective than the opinions of UN style committees. The Case law of the European Court of Human Rights is available in the European Court of Human Rights Search Portal (HUDOC database).

  1. Specific social rights protection: The European Social Charter (ESC) sets out social rights and freedoms and establishes a supervisory mechanism guaranteeing their respect by the States Parties. Following its revision, the 1996 revised European Social Charter, which came into force in 1999, is gradually replacing the initial 1961 treaty.

The Charter guarantees several rights relevant to the public health community:

  • Art 3 (the right to safe and healthy working conditions),
  • Art 7 (the right of children and young persons to protection)
  • Art 11 (the right to protection of health),
  • Art 12 (the right to social security),
  • Art 13 (the right to social and medical assistance),
  • Art 14 (the right to benefit from social welfare services), and
  • Art 30 (derogations in time of war or public emergency).

Article 11 on the right to protection of health says that with a view to ensuring the effective exercise of the right to protection of health, the contracting parties undertake, either directly or in co operation with public or private organisations, to take appropriate measures designed inter alia:

  1. to remove as far as possible the causes of ill health;
  1. to provide advisory and educational facilities for the promotion of health and the encouragement of individual responsibility in matters of health;
  1. to prevent as far as possible epidemic, endemic and other diseases.

- Enforcement of the European Social Charter (ESC): The European Committee of Social Rights (ECSR) and the collective complaints procedure

ECSR is an independent quasi judicial body which interprets the rights enshrined in the European Social Charter.

  • Monitoring procedure: Every year the States Parties submit a report indicating how they implement the Charter in law and in practice. Each report concerns some of the accepted provisions of the Charter. The Committee examines the reports and decides whether or not the situations in the countries concerned are in conformity with the Charter. Its decisions, known as “conclusions”, are published every year.
  • The most powerful legal tool of monitoring is the collective complaints procedure . The Committee determines whether or not national law and practice in the States Parties are in conformity with the Charter (Article 24 of the Charter, as amended by the 1991 Turin Protocol). By the beginning of 2012, 12 EU Member States had become parties to the additional protocol to the ESC [1] . Under this protocol, national and international organisations, such as trade unions, employers’ organisations and international NGOs may lodge complaints; individuals may not do so directly.

- Potential for certain International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs) to lodge collective complaints

The following organisations are allowed to lodge a complaint

  • the European Social Partners: European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) for employees, Business Europe and International Organisation of Employers (OIE) for employers;
  • certain international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) holding participatory status with the Council of Europe
  • social partners at national level

- Two steps to registering as an INGO entitled to lodge a collective complaint alleging violation of the European Social Charter

  1. The first step is to obtain participatory status by the Council of Europe which is granted to international NGOs which are particularly representative at European level, that is to say which federate national member organisations in several of the 47 Member States, and in the fields of their competence. Participatory status is granted once a year in December. As the procedure for the examination of applications takes several months, applications should be submitted by March in order to obtain the status in December of the same year.
  1. The second step is to apply for entitlement to lodge a collective complaint procedure. Each application must be supported by detailed and accurate documentation showing in particular that the INGO has access to authoritative sources of information and is able to carry out the necessary verifications, to obtain appropriate legal opinions, etc., in order to draw up complaint files that meet basic requirements of reliability.

To this end, the INGO may refer to the following documents:

  • Constitution / Statute of the OING;
  • rules of procedure ;
  • composition of its Administrative Council;
  • composition of its Executive Board, if any;
  • latest activity report;
  • its participation in meetings of INGO groupings of the Council of Europe (meetings and dates);
  • any other relevant document.

Related EPHA articles


[1] Council of Europe, Additional Protocol to the European Social Charter Providing for a System of Collective Complaints CETS No. 158, 1995

Last modified on January 25 2014.