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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 16
April 21, 2007

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Star Law Analysis
Human Rights Advocacy
Law Vision
Rights Investigation
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Human Rights Advocacy

National human rights institutions: A primary discussion

Sayeed Ahmad

The government's recent decision, in principle, to form a National Human Rights Commission has earned wide level of welcome. Though for the last ten years it was in the list of the commitment of the governments, in reality people found it as simply rhetoric. However, this time considering the nature and activity of the present Government, many people believe that it is going to be a reality. Thus, this is the high time to bring out discussions from various aspects regarding National Human Rights Institutions (NHRI).

National Human Rights Commission is one of the categories of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRI). The other categories are ombudsman and other specialised national institutions. While the worldwide interest in National Human Rights Institutions (NHRI) is a relatively recent phenomenon, the original concern with such institutions dates back to 1946 when the issue was first addressed by the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). The Council asked the Member States to consider the desirability of establishing information groups or local human rights committees within their respective countries to collaborate with them in furthering the work of the Commission on Human Rights.

In 1960 the Economic and Social Council, in a resolution, invited Governments to encourage the formation and continuation of such bodies as well as to communicate their ideas and information on the subject to the Secretary General.

As standard setting in the field of human rights gained momentum during the 1960s and 1970s, discussions on national institutions became increasingly focused on the ways in which these bodies could assist in the effective implementation of these international standards. In 1978, the Commission on Human Rights holds a seminar in Geneva from 18-29 September on national and international institutions to draft guidelines for the structure and functioning of such bodies. The seminar proposed a series of guidelines, which suggested that the functions of national institutions should be:

(a) To act as a source of human rights information for the Government and people of the country;
(b) To assist in educating public opinion and promoting awareness and respect for human rights;
(c) To consider, deliberate upon, and make recommendations regarding any particular state of affairs that may exist nationally and that the government may wish to refer to them;
(d) To advise on any questions regarding human rights matters referred to them by the Government;
(e) To study and keep under review the status of legislation, judicial decisions and administrative arrangements for the promotion of human rights, and to prepare and submit reports on these matters to the appropriate authorities;
(f) To perform any other function which the Government may wish to assign to them in connection with the duties of the State under those international agreements in the field of human rights to which it is party.

Concerning the structure of such institutions, the guidelines recommended that they should: (a) Be so designed as to reflect in their composition, wide cross-sections of the nation, thereby bringing all parts of that population into the decision making process in regard to human rights;

(b) Function regularly, and that immediate access to them should be available to any member of the public or any public authority;

(c) In appropriate cases, have local or regional advisory organs to assist them in discharging their functions.

The guidelines were subsequently endorsed by the Commission on Human Rights and by the General Assembly. The commission invited all the Member States to take appropriate steps for the establishment, where they did not already exist, of national institutions for the protection and promotion of human rights, and requested the Secretary General to submit a detailed report on existing national institutions.

Throughout the 1980s, the United Nations continued to take an active interest in this topic, and a series of reports, prepared by the Secretary General, was presented to the General Assembly. It was during that time that a considerable number of national institutions were established.

In 1990, the Commission on Human Rights called for a workshop to be convened with the participation of national and regional institutions involved in the protection and promotion of human rights. The workshop was to review patterns of cooperation of national institutions with international institutions, such as United Nations and its agencies, and to explore ways of increasing their effectiveness. The main outcome of this important workshop, held in Paris in October 1991, are known as 'The Paris Principles'.

The Paris Principles: The Paris Principles are the principal source of normative standards for national human rights institutions. So far these principles are considered as the main guiding principles for NHRIs. Both the Commission on Human Rights and the General Assembly later endorsed them. The mail elements of Paris Principles are as follows:
*The Principles are broad and general. They provide that a national institution should be established in the national Constitution or by a law that clearly sets out its role and powers and that, its mandate should be as broad as possible.

*They state that the national institutions should be pluralist and should cooperate with a range of social and political groups and institutions, including NGOs, judicial institutions, professional bodies and Government departments.

*The principles state that, NHRIs should have an infrastructure that allows them to carry out their functions. Particular interest is attached to the need for adequate funding to allow the institution to be independent of the government and not to be subject to financial control that might affect its independence.

*The principles provide that NHRIs should make recommendations and proposals to governments on various matters relating to human rights, including existing and proposed laws, human rights violations and the national human rights situation in general.

*They require national institutions to promote teaching and research on human rights and organize public awareness and programmes.

*The Principles address the methods of operation and by implication, the powers of national institutions. They are entitled to consider any issue falling within their competence without authorization from any higher authority. They are entitled to hear any person or gather any evidence needed to consider matters falling within their competence.

According to the Paris Principles, NHRIs are called on to publicize their decisions and concerns, as well as meet regularly. The principles do not require NHRIs to have a 'quasi-jurisdictional' function- that is to handle complaints or petitions from people whose human rights are alleged to have been violated. However, where NHRIs do have this function, the principles list the following particular obligations:

*To seek an amicable settlement through conciliation, a binding decision or on the basis of confidentiality;

*To inform petitioners of their rights, and available remedies, and promote access to them;

* To hear complaints and transmit them to competent authorities; and

* To make recommendations to competent authorities.

The role of NHRI is very important in the protection and promotion of human rights as they bridge between the state and its citizens. Thus, NHRIs should be completely independent and at the same time capable to address any human rights issue with adequate effectiveness and competence.

Source: Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) publications

The writer is Coordinator, Media and Communication Unit, Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), Dhaka.


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