What it is: The Council of Europe was founded in 1949 to secure 'a greater measure of unity between the European countries'. It was created as part of Europe's determination never to have another war. Any European state joining the Council must accept the principle of the rule of law and guarantee human rights and fundamental freedoms to all its people.

How it is organised: The Council of Europe is not the same as the European Union (though EU members are all members of the Council). It is older than the EU and has a much wider membership. In 2005 it had 46 member states, including Russia, Turkey, and Serbia and Montenegro. Its headquarters are in the Palais de l'Europe in Strasbourg. Official languages are English and French. German, Italian and Russian are also used at the Council's Parliamentary Assembly (whose members are chosen by the governments of their own countries). The Council's Committee of Ministers, which makes the decisions, consists of the Foreign Ministers of each state (or their Permanent Representatives). There is also a Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe. A Secretary-General is elected to co-ordinate the work. Over 350 Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) are linked to the Council to provide in-the-field information.  |more|>

What it means: The Council's work is to protect human rights for all Europeans, whatever their culture and religion, and to support democracies in which there are more than one political party (thus avoiding the chance of unpleasant dictatorships). It deals with many aspects of European life and peaceful co-existence. It looks for ways to solve European problems, such as damage to the environment, crime, and the persecution of minority groups. The Council is probably best-known for the European Convention on Human Rights ('for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms'), and for the European Court of Human Rights. The Convention came into force in 1953, but it took the UK until 1998 to introduce a Human Rights Act in Britain (it came into force in 2000).  Since 1999 there has been a European Commissioner on Human Rights, who among other things promotes education in the awareness of human rights. The Convention protects the human right to life. It protects against ill-treatment and torture. It also protects freedom of thought and religious belief (which includes protection against indoctrination) and freedom of conscience (which means protection for people who have strong convictions, like vegans and pacifists).

Think about it: Of course the Council has a difficult job running itself: the member countries are all very different. Its problems are what make headlines, rather than its successes.  But enormously valuable work is quietly going on every day. The Council is a remarkable organisation: whatever disagreements there may be among members, everyone is committed to solving every problem peacefully. That commitment is crucial. And of course it's a commitment any group can make, from the grass roots upwards. Think about that kind of commitment, local, national or international: what keeps it strong? What threats might it face? How could they be dealt with without giving up the commitment?