Dr. Khine Khine Win
After receiving same questions from many people, I have decided to write this article. Questions are what is National Human Rights Commission? What are their mandates? Why governments establish the commissions and why they support finance to operate? What is Paris Principles and ICC accreditation?
The acronym NHRIs encompasses National Human Rights Institutions. They are State bodies with a constitutional and/or legislative mandate to promote and protect human rights in countries around the world. Protection of human rights includes receiving, investigating and resolving the complaints, mediating conflicts and monitoring activities. Promotion of human rights includes education, outreach, media, publications, training and capacity building activities as well as advising and assisting government. Since the 1990s, the number of National Human Rights Institutions, NHRIs has been growing in the world.
NHRIs are funded by the State but are independent of it: they are not non-governmental organizations but they act as “bridge” between civil societies and Governments. They link the responsibilities of the State to the rights of citizens and they connect national laws to regional and international human rights system.
There is no nomenclature for NHRIs. They are known by different names in different countries, for instance they may be called Human Rights Commission, Committee or Council, Ombudsman, Public Defender etc, depending on the region, legal tradition and common usage. But they are mostly called human rights commission. Here it should be noted that some NGOs have the word “commission” in their name, but an NGO is not an NHRI.
The idea of establishing National Human Rights Institutions, NHRIs was first conceived in the aftermath of World War II. In 1946, the Economic and Social Council considered the issue of national institutions, two years before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, became the common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations. Member states were invited to consider establishing information groups or local human rights committees.
In 1991, the first international workshop on National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights took place in Paris. A key outcome was the Paris Principles and those principles were originally conceived of as minimum standards, for the establishment of national commission. 20 December 1993, the Paris Principles was officially adopted by UN Generally Assembly with the resolution 48/134.
If you are interested in NHRIs, you should study the Paris Principles. The internationally agreed Paris Principles define the role, composition, status and functions of national human rights institutions. It set out six criteria that NHRIs should meet to be successful: A broad mandate, Autonomy from government (most important, most difficult and controversial), Independence (both operational and financial)), Pluralism (membership), Adequate resources and Adequate powers of investigation. Despite the principle in favor of a broad mandate, some restrictions are common and non problematic. For instance, most NHRIs are prohibited from dealing with matters that are before the courts or that have already been decided by the courts.
For example, article 37 of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission law (MNHRC law) state that “ The Commission shall not inquire into the complaint which violates any of the following : the cases under trial before any court, cases under appeal or revision on the decision of any court, cases that have been finally determined by any court.
Also the Paris Principles list a number of responsibilities for national institutions, which fall under five headings. First, the institution shall monitor any situation of violation of human rights which it decides to take up. Second, the institution shall be able to advise the Government, the Parliament and any other competent body on specific violations, on issues related to legislation and general compliance and implementation with international human rights instruments. Third, the institution shall relate to regional and international organizations. Fourth, the institution shall have a mandate to educate and inform in the field of human rights. Fifth, some institutions are given a quasi-judicial competence.
Nowadays, those principles are broadly accepted as the test of an institution’s legitimacy and credibility. But there is no ideal or single accepted structure of NHRIs beyond compliance with the Paris Principles. By 23rd May 2014, there are 106 NHRIs operating around the world. Although the Paris Principles set out the minimum standards for the roles and responsibilities of NHRIs, they do not dictate NHRI models or structures. According to the 1993 Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, States have the right to choose the framework that best suits them, subject to international human rights standards.
If you talk about NHRIs and Paris Principles, you must know ICC too. ICC, International Coordinating Committee for National Human Rights Institutions, is the International Association of National Human Rights Institutions, NHRIs, from all parts of the globe. It was established in 1993 with the aim of coordinating the activities of the NHRI network. ICC promotes and strengthens NHRIs to be in accordance with the Paris Principles, and provides leadership in the promotion and protection of human rights. The ICC facilitates and supports NHRIs engagement with the UN Human Rights Council and Treaty Bodies,• encourages cooperation and information sharing among NHRIs, including through an annual meeting and biennial conference,• undertakes accreditation of NHRIs in accordance with the Paris Principles, promotes the role of NHRIs within the United Nations and with States and other international agencies, offers capacity building in collaboration with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), assists NHRIs under threat and if requested. ICC can assist government to establish NHRIs.
ICC reviews and analyzes accreditation applications and makes recommendation to ICC Bureau members in compliance with Paris Principles. ICC’s Sub-Committee (SCA) and Bureau of ICC take accreditation decisions. Accreditation is the official recognition that NHRIs meet or continue to comply fully with the Paris Principles. There are currently three levels of accreditation: “A” Voting member : complies fully with the Paris Principles, “B” Observer member: does not fully comply with the Paris Principles or has not yet submitted sufficient documentation to make that determination, “C” Non-member: does not comply with the Paris Principles. It is, of course, critical that the NHRI should comply with the Paris Principle.
Clearly, States are the prime obligation to respect, protect and fulfill the rights of citizens. In order to promote and protect the human rights, NHRs receive their authority from the State and enable States to meet their international responsibilities to take all appropriate action to ensure that international obligations are implemented at the national level. As independent entities but establishment by the government, NHRIs occupy unique terrain, one that can link to civil society to the government. Today, NHR have a growing role to play in interacting with international human rights mechanism, such as treaty bodies, UPR and special procedures. NHRIs should coordinate their work with NHRIs from other countries, and with regional bodies in order to build international networks of NHRIs and build capacity.
To conclude, for a NHRI to play an effective role, it must function in accordance with the UN Paris Principles.
1. UNDP-OHCHR Toolkit: for collaboration with National Human Rights Institution
2. International Council on Human Rights Policy and OHCHR, Assessing the Effectiveness of NHRI (2005)
3. National Human Rights Institution, History, Principles, Roles and Responsibilities, OHCHR, UN 2010