Using its powers under the founding Statute, the Assembly can:
Though it has no power to pass binding laws, PACE holds a constant dialogue with governments, national parliaments, other international organisations and civil society which "sets the agenda". In this way, its texts filter down through law and practice to improve the lives of Europeans everywhere.
Through its recommendations, the Assembly demands action on behalf of the 700 million Europeans it represents – and the 46 governments of the Council of Europe, represented in the Committee of Ministers, are obliged to respond. In practice, the Assembly often acts as the "motor" for the Council of Europe, driving forward new ideas, setting strategic direction and initiating many of the Council's most important activities.
The Assembly has produced powerful reports which uncover new evidence of shocking human rights violations, such as torture taking place in secret prisons on European soil. Headlines around the world have helped to put pressure on governments, leading to high-profile national or international inquiries which have sought to bring those responsible to justice and make sure such things never recur.
Presidents, Prime Ministers or other leading figures who address the Assembly are obliged to answer questions from the parliamentarians, who are free to raise any issue they choose. The Chair of the Committee of Ministers – representing the 46 governments – must also face such parliamentary scrutiny at every session. It is one of the ways the Assembly holds Europe's governments publicly accountable for their policies and actions.
Assembly delegations – made up of parliamentarians who have themselves been elected – regularly observe elections in member or partner countries, providing a valuable litmus test of democratic practice on the ground. The President or high-level delegations will also frequently visit crisis hot-spots to mediate using the tools of "parliamentary diplomacy", nudge antagonists towards compromise or assess the situation against Council standards.
The Assembly must give its green light before any country can join the Council of Europe. The Assembly has used this veto power, especially during the wave of enlargement from eastern Europe after 1989, to set conditions on membership – obliging states to promise many major changes (such as ending the death penalty) before they can "join the club".
Around 40 per cent of the Council of Europe's 200-plus conventions – or multilateral treaties – were inspired by the Assembly. The European Convention on Human Rights is the most well-known, but there have been many others, including recent ones to help national minorities or protect women against domestic violence. The parliamentarians can press for improvements as these texts are being drafted, and must be consulted before they enter into force, helping to improve national law and practice across Europe.
If it is concerned by changes in the laws or constitutions of a member state, the Assembly can ask the Council of Europe's Venice Commission – a group of independent legal experts – to give an opinion. These opinions carry great weight, and often result in the country concerned bringing its new law into line with Council standards.
If a state seriously violates Council of Europe standards, the Assembly has the power to suspend a national delegation, or remove its voting rights – a sanction that has been used on several occasions. In the worst cases, it can recommend that a state be expelled from the Council of Europe.
In recommendations to the Council of Europe's executive body, the Assembly demands action from the 46 governments – and they, via the Committee of Ministers, must reply. In practice PACE acts as a "motor", driving forward new ideas.
Disputes between states, internal political crises, divisive social questions – all sides can bring difficult issues to a neutral forum, where they are freely discussed under the eyes of fellow parliamentarians in the light of shared values.
The Assembly elects the judges of the European Court of Human Rights, ensuring their quality and independence from government influence. It has used this power to improve the gender balance on the Court by requiring more women candidates.
The Assembly elects also the Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as the Secretary General and the Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe and its own Secretary General.
The Assembly's "monitoring" procedure – currently applied to eleven countries – helps them fulfil their promises to attain the highest democratic standards. Regular visits, ongoing dialogue and occasional debates ensure that a state's progress and problems are honestly assessed. "Post-monitoring dialogue" continues with some states, while there are periodic reviews of all other states.
PACE seeks to spread human rights and democratic ideals to its neighbourhood, such as the countries of the "Arab Spring", the Middle East or central Asia. Parliaments from these regions can send delegations to take part in PACE activities if they pledge to work towards Council of Europe values.
Assembly delegations – made up of parliamentarians who have themselves been elected – regularly observe elections in member or partner countries, providing a valuable litmus test of democratic practice on the ground
In its reports, the Assembly scrutinises the actions of organisations such as the UN, the EU, WHO, NATO or FIFA for their compliance with human rights standards. It also acts as a parliamentary forum for bodies such as the EBRD and OECD, producing annual assessments of their progress.
PACE sponsors, together with prestigious partners, a number of prizes to reward courage and dedication in promoting fundamental European values. These include the Vaclav Havel Human Rights prize for civil society, the "Europe Prize" for towns and cities, and a museum prize.