Council of Europe, international organization founded in 1949 to promote greater unity within Europe and to safeguard its political and cultural heritage by promoting human rights and democracy. The council is headquartered in Strasbourg, France. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of dictatorial Communist rule in Eastern Europe, most Eastern European nations joined the council, bringing the membership total to 47. Only Belarus and Vatican City are not members; Vatican City has observer status. The conventions and treaties signed under the auspices of the Council of Europe deal with humanitarian, cultural, economic, and social problems.
In 1959 the council established a European Court of Human Rights to protect the rights of individuals in member nations against arbitrary government action. The court has heard cases involving corporal punishment; the protection of minorities, immigrants, suspects, prisoners, and the mentally ill; and the infringement of rights of speech, the press, religion, privacy, and sexuality. Member countries have been censured and risk expulsion if they fail to abide by the rulings. Britain (one of the founders) has, for instance, been upbraided for actions involving the IRA and the jailing of minors, and British representatives have bridled at the court's intervention in Britain's justice system. In the early 21st cent., the large number of cases brought by Russian citizens and the judgments handed down in favor of Russian claimants have led to tensions with Russia and Russian blockage of a package of court reforms. A 2015 Russian law subsequently gave that nation's constitutional court the right to reject international human rights rulings if they were found to contradict the Russian constitution.
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