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Human Rights in europe

States across the Europe region have adopted constitutions, other laws and measures which formally protect human rights. Under these laws, and in accordance with the international human rights obligations laid down in the International Bill of Rights (the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) and the core human rights treaties, national authorities have a responsibility and a duty to respect, protect and to fulfil human rights, and to ensure an effective human rights protection system at national level, which should include political, administrative, quasi-judicial and judicial channels.

Complementing domestic legal frameworks, measures, standards, mechanisms and procedures exist at the regional level to help ensure that international human rights standards are indeed respected, implemented, and enforced across the continent.

The Council of Europe and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)

The Council of Europe is Europe’s oldest intergovernmental organisation, dedicated to advancing human rights, rule of law and democracy in the region. Currently, 46 States across the continent are parties to the Council of Europe, including all the 27 member States of the European Union. All Council of Europe member States have signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights, a regional human rights treaty whose implementation by the member States is overseen by the European Court of Human Rights, sitting in Strasbourg. Individuals can directly seek recourse through the European Court of Human Rights if they believe their rights have been violated once all possibilities of appeal have been exhausted in the member State concerned.

The European Union’s commitment to promote and protect human rights

The European Union (EU) is both an association of countries cooperating in fields of mutual interest and a community of values. Respect for human rights is one of the EU’s founding values, guiding its internal and external action.

In order to strengthen the protection of human rights by making those rights more visible and more explicit for people in the 27 EU member States, the EU has adopted a Charter of Fundamental Rights, which complements, and applies in conjunction with, national and international human rights protection systems. Legally binding since 2009, the Charter is addressed to the institutions and bodies of the EU in all their actions, as well as national authorities of the EU member States when they are implementing EU law. The Charter encapsulates a comprehensive range of rights and principles, as they result from the constitutional traditions and international obligations common to the Member States. The Charter is, in particular, meant to be interpreted and applied consistently with the European Convention on Human Rights, which the European Union itself is preparing to sign. The rights enshrined in the Charter include civil and political rights, such as the right to life, liberty, dignity, non-discrimination, or freedom of expression, as well as a range of social and economic rights and 'third generation' rights, such as data protection, guarantees on bioethics or transparent administration.

The EU has developed an extensive body of legislation which serves to protect and promote human rights. These laws cover various areas, including non-discrimination, privacy, the right to asylum, data protection, workers' rights, and more. EU Member States are obliged to implement and enforce these laws, and the EU actively monitors their compliance, as well as, more broadly, compliance with the Charter of Fundamental Rights in connection to the implementation of EU laws and policies. If systemic issues arise, the EU (in particular, the European Commission) can initiate infringement proceedings to urge national authorities to cease and remedy the violation, as part of its commitment to upholding human rights standards across its member States.

If their rights under EU law, including their human rights, are violated, individuals can seek legal remedies through national courts. The Court of Justice of the EU, sitting in Luxembourg, plays a pivotal role in ensuring that EU law, including the Charter of Fundamental Rights, is interpreted and applied in the same way in every EU Member State and that countries and EU institutions abide by it.

The EU is equipped with an independent EU agency dedicated to advancing human rights within the EU, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA). Engaging with a wide range of stakeholders from the local to international level, the FRA provides expert advice to policy and decision makers and regularly conducts research, collects data, and publishes reports on various human rights issues. By offering evidence-based insights and expert advice, the FRA assists EU institutions and member States in better promoting and protecting human rights across the EU.

The EU member states are parties to the European Convention on Human Rights, an international human rights treaty established by the Council of Europe. The EU incorporates the ECHR into its legal framework, providing an additional layer of protection for human rights. Individuals can seek recourse through the European Court of Human Rights if they believe their rights have been violated.

Human Rights Defenders

As in every part of the world, human rights defenders (HRDs) across Europe play a crucial role in safeguarding and promoting human rights and democracy, both at local and at regional level.

National and regional networks and coalitions of civil society organisations actively work on the promotion and protection of human rights within Europe’s States and in the context of regional frameworks. For example, the Human Rights and Democracy Network (HRDN) is an informal grouping of NGOs operating at the EU level in the broad areas of human rights, democracy and peace, which aims to influence EU and EU member States’ policies and the programming of their funding instruments to make sure they effectively protect human rights at home and are a force for positive change in the world.

Other independent actors such as National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) and equality bodies are also key for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights in the region, whose work is promoted and supported by dedicated regional networks. In particular, the European Network of National Human Rights Institutions (ENNHRI) brings together over 40 NHRIs across Europe, to enhance the promotion and protection of human rights in the region through strengthening, supporting and connecting European NHRIs. The European Network of Equality Bodies (Equinet) facilitates cooperation among, and supports and promote the work of, equality bodies, unique state institutions that promote equality and fight discrimination at the national level.

EU policy and strategy for EU’s external action on Human Rights

The European External Action Service (EEAS) in cooperation with the the EU Special Representative for Human Rights (EUSR) ensures the integration of human rights in all EU external action and plays a central role in guiding the implementation of the Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy (2020-2024) The Action Plan serves to implement the Strategic Framework on Human Rights and Democracy adopted in 2012, which lays out the key principles, objectives and priorities for EU external policies, such as promoting the universality of human rights, human rights in all EU external policies and working with bilateral partners and through multilateral institutions. Each year an annual report on Human Rights and Democracy in the World is presented by the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. This provides an overview of EU activities to uphold and advance human rights and democracy across the globe and monitors the implementation the Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy in all areas of external action.

Human Rights Trends in Europe

Learn about the latest developments regarding human rights in Europe

Learn more about Human Rights in European Countries