The Council of Europe and its European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) play a very important role in Europe where it comes to the protection of human rights and minority protection. Contrary to the political provisions of the OSCE, those of the Council of Europe are legally binding for its 47 Member States. The international organisation develops multilateral treaties. If there is a breach against one of the rights of the ECHR, every person can file a complaint at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg, i.e. the Council of Europe is also responsible for legal protection. The ECtHR makes an important contribution to the development of minority protection in Europe. In order to become member of the European Union, states have since the beginning of the nineties also been required to adopt a European minimum standard of minority protection in national law. That is important because all EU Member States are state parties to the ECHR and therefore bound by the Convention. The EU itself is not yet bound to the ECHR in its actions. According to the Lisbon Treaty from 2009 the EU shall accede to the ECHR (Article 6(2) TEU).
The Council of Europe adopted the ECHR in Rome in 1950 and the treaty entered into force three years later. It contains a catalogue with the most important fundamental and human rights. Specific minority rights are not included, but the prohibition of discrimination of Article 14 ECHR is essential for the protection of minorities. No person shall be treated less favourable on the ground of his association with a national minority. Article 21 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU was drafted based on this Article.
With the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (Language Charter), the Council of Europe developed the most important legally binding instruments in Europe.
The Framework Convention and the Language Charter complement one another. Whereas the Framework Convention defines general civil and political rights, the Language Charter focuses on linguistic and cultural issues.
Framework Convention on the Protection of National Minorities
From 1993 the Member States of the Council worked on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, which was opened for signature on 1 February 1995. The Convention, which entered into force in Germany in 1998, prohibits any discrimination based on membership of a national minority or assimilation against someone’s own will. Furthermore the Member States are obliged to protect the civil liberties and have to undertake significant supporting measures that benefit the national minorities. The Framework Convention is implemented in Germany as a Federal Act and therefore takes precedence over e.g. regional law. Out of currently 47 Member States of the Council of Europe, 39 have ratified the Framework Convention, and another four Member States have signed the Convention. The exceptions are France, Greece, Belgium, Monaco, Luxembourg, Andorra, Iceland and Turkey (as of January 2017).
Germany was actively involved in drafting the Framework Convention and campaigned strongly for its effective implementation. Because, besides adopting international treaties and obligation, it is just as important to create the mechanisms that guarantee that the Treaty states live up to these obligations.
One year after the treaty enters into force, the signatory states have to inform the Council of Europe of the implementation, and subsequently they have to submit a report every five years.
An Advisory Committee consisting of independent experts supports the Council of Europe in its monitoring tasks.
European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages
The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages aims at protecting and promoting the minority and regional languages traditionally spoken in a signatory state as endangered elements of the European cultural heritage. The measures required apply to education, in particular teaching languages and teaching in the language, the use of regional or minority languages in the judiciary and in administration, the use of the language in the media and press, in cultural activities and establishments and in the economic and social life.
The Language Charter, however, has a “menu-system”, which entails that the states have the possibility to select within the different areas of life between different alternative obligations. Each treaty state has to select at least 35 paragraphs or Articles from a catalogue of provisions, including a number of compulsory measures that have to be selected from a “core area”.
In Germany in particular the regions (Lands) are responsible for the implementation of the Language Charter, and to a lesser extend the federal level, in particular because education is mainly a competence of the regions. Before Germany signed the Charter, the regions were given the chance to sign up for those obligations that are tailored to the specific circumstances of the different minorities and language groups. The obligations undertaken by the different regions (Lands) therefore vary in their details – differentiated according to minority and language group.
The Charter was opened for signature in Strasbourg on 5 November 1992, but entered into force not earlier than 1 March 1998, once the required number of five ratifications was met. The Federal Republic of Germany is among the first signatory states on 5 November 1992. With the Law of 9 July 1998, the German Federal Parliament (Bundestag) adopted the Charter, with the consent of the Federal Council (Bundesrat), and the Charter entered into force in Germany on 1 January 1999. Just like the Framework Convention, the Language Charter has federal law status, which takes precedence over secondary law, including regional law, and which basically has to be applied against other federal legislation as the specific law (lex specialis). Out of currently 47 Member States of the Council of Europe, so far 25 states have ratified the Charter and eight just signed the Charter (as of January 2017).