The Council of Europe Strengthens the Legal Framework for Civil Society in Europe

17 Oct 2007


In October 2007 the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe adopted a Recommendation to member states on the legal status of non-governmental organisations in Europe (CM/Rec(2007)14).

This is the first international legal instrument that targets the legislator, the national authorities and the NGOs themselves.  It aims to recommend standards to shape legislation and practice vis-a-vis NGOs, as well as the conduct and activities of the NGOs themselves in a democratic society based on the rule of law.

The recommendation was adopted to recognise the importance of NGOs in modern society and to elaborate minimum standards for their operation.  Although these standards are observed in many countries, the position of NGOs has been under threat in others and the recommendation gives a better basis for monitoring adverse measures taken in the future.

It is particularly concerned with the legal and fiscal framework required to ensure that NGOs can continue to make their various contributions to public and social life.  Furthermore, it outlines the limitations on objectives and activities that NGOs must observe, particularly those that are anti-democratic or are concerned with the making and distribution of profits.  In addition, it highlights responsibilities that can arise from receiving public support for their activities as well as underlining their responsibility to be transparent and to observe the generally applicable law.

The broadly framed guarantees of freedom of association, other human rights and fundamental freedoms that have been provided in rulings of the European Court of Human Rights and the views of the UN human rights treaty bodies have been built upon in this recommendation.

Implementation of this Recommendation will require member states to take full account of the standards that it sets out in all their legislation, policies and practices that have any bearing on the formation, operation and termination of NGOs.  It will only be fully successful through the widest possible dissemination of the standards set out in it and by training all officials concerned with the activities of NGOs.

So what does this mean? All 47 Council of Europe member states adopted the Recommendation but, unlike an EU Recommendation, there is no specific legal obligation to implement it.  It will, however, be used in arguments before the European Court of Human Rights as to the requirements of the right to freedom of association under the European Convention on Human Rights and will also be used by political bodies such as the Committee of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe as a basis for assessing state practice and exerting political pressure.

Jeremy McBride was the scientific expert for its preparation.

To view the recommendations, please click here.

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Jeremy McBride