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Famed for its picturesque mountains, Austria is a landlocked country in central Europe. Austrian politics is marked nationally by consensus, with “grand” coalitions across the political spectrum being common, and internationally by neutrality. Though widely acknowledged as a country with a strong record on human rights, the asylum process has been widely criticised by human rights organisations, and discrimination against children from minority backgrounds has been raised by numerous human rights mechanisms.
Austria is a landlocked and mountainous country in central Europe and shares borders with Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Italy, Switzerland and Liechtenstein. The capital city is Vienna.
Population and language
The country has a population of 8.4 million people, a figure that has risen gradually since the 1980s. Since 2005, however, population growth has slowed to an annual rate of 0.25 per cent. The 2001 Census indicated that the vast majority of Austrians were of Austrian decent (91.1 per cent), but that there were substantial ethnic minorities of people from the former Yugoslavia (4 per cent) and Turkey (1.6 per cent). German is the most widely spoken language, but Turkish, Serbian, Croatian and a variety of other languages from the region are spoken.
History and Politics
In the aftermath of the Second World War, Austria came under the control of the US, the UK, France and the USSR until the State Peace treaty of 1955, which established modern day Austria. The agreement had a marked impact on its international relations, causing the State to adopt a policy of neutrality that positioned it at the centre of Cold War politics in Europe. Since the collapse of the USSR Austria has been willing to be more flexible in applying the neutrality principle, indeed it joined the EU in 1995 and has engaged in several peacekeeping operations over the past 15 years, but international neutrality has become a popular part of national politics and identity. Several high profile international organisations use the country as their base for this very reason, including the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
So-called “Grand Coalitions”, in which the ideologically divided Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) and the People's Party (ÖVP) have governed together, have accounted for more than half of the 60 years since post-war elections began. This has generally resulted in opposition parties commanding a small number of parliamentary seats and government by compromise. Following the 2008 elections, such a coalition returned for a second consecutive term, with Werner Faymann of the SPÖ as Chancellor. President Heinz Fischer is currently serving his second term as President, a largely ceremonial role. The elections of 2008 showed a shift to the right in Austrian politics, in which the Freedom Party and the Alliance for the Future of Austria made significant gains.
Austria has a well-developed market economy with substantial economic ties to other EU countries, which account for 80 per cent of its exports. Food, luxury commodities, mechanical engineering, steel construction, chemicals, vehicle manufacturing and the service industries all make a substantial contribution to the national economy. The global economic crisis caused GDP to fall for the first time in decades in 2009, but the economy recovered relatively quickly, and Austria was able to maintain one of the lowest unemployment rates in the EU. The Eurozone crisis has left Austria's economy vulnerable, however, and has led Standard and Poor's to downgrade the country's AAA credit rating.
Media and Civil Society
Reporters Without Borders rated Austria 7 out of 178 countries in its 2010 Press Freedom Index, a ranking that places the country among the most liberated in terms of media freedom. However, the organisation has raised concerns about amendments to the “Security Police Law”, with regards to intercepting e-mail, tapping phones and the retention of personal data by internet service providers. There have also been a significant number of cases brought to the European Court of Human Rights against the country in relation to article 10 (freedom of expression) rights.
Human Rights and Children's Rights
Though Austria has a relatively strong record on human rights, human rights organisations have raised a number of issues in relation to the country. Some of the principal concerns revolve around the treatment of asylum-seekers, including children. In November 2010, the European Court of Human Rights sent a letter to the government asking it to stop transfers to Greece, because of the State's absence of a functioning asylum system, but authorities continue to the practice. In July, an asylum seeker who claimed to be 16 years old committed suicide whilst detained. Allegations of racism have also been prominent complaints with regards to Austria's human rights record, particularly with respect to allegations of racially motivated police misconduct towards foreign nationals and ethnic minorities. The absence of a prohibition on torture from the Criminal Code has also been a persistent concern of the Committee against Torture.
- BBC, "Austria's new coalition sworn in" 2 December 2008
- Austrian Times, "Austrian jobless rate lowest in EU" 9 January 2012
- International Business Times, "S&P downgrades: France, Austria moved from AAA rating; Germany emerges with solid outlook" 13 January 2012
- Reporters Without Borders, "Austria Profile"
- Amnesty International, "Report 2011: The state of the world's human rights: Austria"
- UN Committee against Torture, CAT/C/AUT/CO/4-5, Concluding Observations, 20 May 2010, paragraph 8
- OHCHR, Austria Homepage
- Foreign and Commonwealth Office, "Austria Country Profile"
- BBC, "Austria Country Profile" and news items (see footnotes)
- Austrian Census 2001
- International Business Times (see footnotes)
- Austrian Times (see footnotes)
- Reporters Without Borders (see footnotes)
- Amnesty International (see footnotes)