The Council of Europe was always meant as an organisation that would protect people’s rights in every aspect of their life. But the economic devastation of the post-war years meant that choices had to be made. In early debates at the Consultative Assembly (later the Parliamentary Assembly), some parliamentarians argued forcibly to include social rights, but eventually it was decided to focus initially on civil and political rights.
By the 50s, work was beginning on drafting a European Social Charter. In April 1953, Council of Europe officials set out the principles – that the Social Charter would be a sister to the Human Rights Convention, that it should reflect the core idea that European society: “is based on the respect for the dignity of man (sic) and has as its aim the improvement of his living conditions”, and that it should be a “European document (which) should stress the principles that characterise Western democracies in the social field”. At the same time they recognised they were facing a challenge: “The situation to-day may not seem promising for important social advances. Economic conditions reflect the heavy strain imposed by defence expenditure, adverse trade conditions and the need for increased exports. These difficulties should, however, not be permitted to overshadow the social aim towards which the Members of the Council of Europe are pledged to strive.”
By 1961 the Social Charter was ready, guaranteeing rights across the board for citizens in Council of Europe member states, including the right to work, collective bargaining, social security, social and medical assistance, to protect the family and to protect the families of migrant workers. A protocol in 1988 extended the rights to include equal opportunities and equal treatment, the right to social protection for the elderly and the right for workers to be informed and consulted on working conditions. The Charter was revised again in 1996, bringing in new rights such as protection against poverty and social exclusion, the right to housing, to protection when people are made redundant, and to protection against harassment of all forms in the workplace.
Today the Charter is the only international legal treaty that covers such a range of rights. It has changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of European citizens for the better and inspired both the European Union and individual governments to create strong safeguards to protect us day to day.