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The Council of Europe, which was established in 1949, is the continent's oldest and most inclusive organisation for political cooperation. The Council of Europe came into being after the Second World War with the aim of safeguarding stability and prosperity in Europe so as to prevent new conflicts. Finland became a full member in 1989.
The organisation's most important institutions are the Committee of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), which brings together representatives from the member states. The Assembly presents initiatives and makes recommendations, on the basis of which the Committee of Ministers makes decisions. The ten founding members believed that European unity could be achieved by strengthening European values and creating common legal standards. Since 2011 the Assembly has had 47 member states. The only European state that has not been admitted is Belarus. The Council of Europe's work has resulted in some 200 European conventions and other treaties covering numerous fields.
Key focuses of the Council of Europe are human rights, legal cooperation, educational and cultural cooperation, social affairs and health issues, and environmental cooperation. As a result of its rapid expansion since 1989, the Council of Europe has shifted more and more attention to protecting its fundamental values - human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
The Finnish delegation has five members and five alternates. It submits an annual activity report to Parliament.
Governments direct the work of the Council of Europe through its decision-making organ, the Committee of Ministers. It comprises the foreign ministers of the member states and meets twice a year, in May and November. Ministers' deputies, who are usually member states' Permanent Representatives, meet weekly.
The Committee of Ministers decides on the budget, the admission of new members and the organisation's policies and activities. It has a revolving Presidency, with member states serving for six months at a time in alphabetical order. The country holding the Presidency represents the Council of Europe in international connections.
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe discusses timely matters and presents initiatives, on the basis of which the Committee of Ministers makes decisions. Assembly initiatives have been behind the most important Council of Europe conventions, such as the European Human Rights Convention (1950) and the European Social Charter (1961). Assembly discussions, reports and studies have led to changes in national legislation in such areas as the family and civil society, administrative law, consumer protection, animal testing, minority rights, and drug and alcohol policies.
The Assembly meets four times each year, in January, April, June and October. Sessions last about a week and take place at the seat of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg (the Palais de l'Europe). In January the Assembly elects the President and 19 Vice-Presidents and appoints ten committees. The Bureau includes the President, the Vice-Presidents and the chairs of the political groups. Representatives serve a one-year term, beginning at the start of the January session.
Sessions are public and are webcast live. There is a link to webcasts on the Assembly's front page (when it is in session).
The Assembly has ten standing committees, which have been mandated to deal with political affairs; economic affairs and development; social, health and family affairs; legal affairs and human rights; culture, science and education; the environment and agriculture; migration, refugees and population; equality and non-discrimination; rules of procedure; and the honouring of obligations and commitments by member states (Monitoring Committee).
The Bureau includes the President and Vice-Presidents of the Assembly and the chairpersons of the political groups. The Standing Committee comprises the members of the Bureau together with the committee chairpersons and the chairpersons of the political groups and national delegations. It meets at least three times a year and makes decisions for the Assembly between sessions. The Joint Committee includes representatives of the Assembly and the Committee of Ministers, which is the Council of Europe's decision-making body.
The Finnish delegation appoints one member and one alternate to nine of the committees and their subcommittees plus two members to the Monitoring Committee. The delegation decides on committee members and alternates. A list of current Finnish committee members can be obtained from the delegation's secretariat.
The members of the Assembly belong to five political groups: the Socialist Group, the Group of the European People's Party, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, the European Democrat Group and the Group of the Unified European Left. A small number of members do not belong to a political group. National parliaments' political make-up is reflected in the composition of delegations.
The official languages of the Council of Europe are English and French. Assembly documents are published in both languages. Working languages also include German, Italian, Russian and Spanish. Speeches given during sessions are simultaneously interpreted into all the other working languages.
The Council of Europe has its headquarters in Strasbourg. The Secretariat has a staff of about 1,300 persons.
The European Court of Human Rights, which was set up in 1959, strives to ensure that member states comply with the European Convention on Human Rights. It does not make initiatives but rules on individual or state applications concerning actions for which a public authority, such as a court or administrative body, is responsible. It does not handle complaints concerning private persons, organisations or undertakings.
Since 1999 the Council of Europe has had a Commissioner for Human Rights, who is elected by the Assembly on the basis of a recommendation from the Committee of Ministers, for a term of six years. The Commissioner visits member countries and if necessary makes recommendations to governments concerning violations of human rights. The Commissioner does not handle individual complaints, which must be addressed to the Court of Human Rights.