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July 20, 2003 

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Human Rights Commission: Out of agenda again?

Abul Hasnat

The Government might deserve primary commendation, at least, for placing the much talked (In)dependent Anti-Corruption Commission in the parliament expeditiously in the last budget session of the 8th Parliament for whatever motivation. Whether it is or will be substantially independent one is a different discourse. Interestingly, the Government is keeping absolute mum on the question of two other critical institutions i.e., Ombudsman and Human Rights Commission. Particularly in case of human rights commission where the present government reportedly completed the process of drafting the legislation, nothing has happened so far to approve the bill in Cabinet and present it in the Parliament.

Making human rights accessible
Human rights are ultimately a profoundly national, not international, issue. In an international system where government is national rather than global, human rights are by definition principally a national matter. Though human rights transcend the barrier of domestic jurisdiction, international and even regional human rights mechanisms are simply inaccessible to the vast majority of the world's population. Indeed individual rights and freedoms will be protected or violated because of what exist or what is lacking within a given state or society. States are holders of the obligation under the international human rights treaties to uphold and realise human rights of people within their respective territories. Hence the concept of national human rights institutions gained currency all over the world.
The United Nations uses the broad term "institution" to describe a domestic human rights mechanism. This term initially includes "virtually any institution at the national level having a direct or indirect impact on the promotion and protection of human rights." Subsequently the definition was narrowed down to include those institutions that have the following functions: educational and promotional activities; provisions of advice to governments on human rights matters; and investigation and resolution of complaints of violations committed by public (and occasionally also private) entities. A national human rights institution has been described as "a body, which is established by a government under the Constitution, or by law or decree, the functions of, which are specially defined in terms of the promotion, and protection of human rights."
Paradoxically, the credibility of a national human rights institution, created and funded by the state, depends on its ability as an independent body, to monitor and scrutinise the state's performance against human rights criteria. In many countries national human rights institutions failed to fulfil the expectation they created when they were first established. On the contrary, in some jurisdictions where the expectations greeted with profound suspicion, the institutions made explicit difference. While national institutions are not necessarily the 'ideal type' of human rights mechanism, if autonomous and appropriately structured, they can be a useful means for promoting a dialogue between governments and their citizens. It can, at least, offer the people in difficult situation, an affordable alternative to seek justice.
In a country like Bangladesh where the violations of human rights by state agencies are rampant, the expectation from any such proposed institution, thus minimal. But at the same time, it might not be seen justified to spend donor money in a sector where the government is politically unwilling to set up the commission. Forming sub-committee, involving in prolonged discussion, or undertaking research study to delay the process underplays government's international obligation and national commitment towards human rights.

Human Rights Commission: No hope for early enactment?
It seems there is no hope for early enactment of any Act pertaining to protection of human rights through national institutions. It is disappointing to see that the successive governments frequently changed their policy on national human rights institutions. The process of setting up such institutions, in fact, began in late 1994 during the then BNP regime. The Institutional Development of Human rights in Bangladesh (IDHRB) project was formally launched in 1995. The work of drafting a law was continued during 1996-2001 under Awami League government. However the Awami League Government did not establish the Commission due to lack of political commitment.
The 4 Party Government led by BNP initially decided to continue the process. The present cabinet at its regular meeting on December 10, 2001 formed the committee headed by law minister Barrister Moudud Ahmed to examine the prospect of setting up of the commission. Communications Minister Barrister Nazmul Huda, Post and Telecommunication Minister Barrister Aminul Haque and Information Minister Dr. Abdul Moyeen Khan are the other notable members of the committee. The cabinet committee came up with the idea of enacting a comprehensive law on the protection of human rights instead of legislating a bill for instituting a National Human Rights Commission only (thereby scrapping the Awami League draft). In about 18 months since its formation, the sub committee held numerous meetings to finalise new draft legislation all over again!
The process has been continuing for last 9 years. No other country has so copiously researched the necessary parameters of an effective National Human Rights Commission. However, despite the work of the IDHRB, the Government's effort to establish such a Commission has been half-hearted. Those Bangladesh NGOs, which are critical of the Government's performance on the protection and promotion of human rights, have allegedly been excluded from the process. It remains to be seen whether the numerous high level seminars and study tours were designed to teach the government how to set up an effective commission, or are merely a part of the Government's strategy to create a toothless tiger - it also remains to be observed whether the bill will incorporate the UN Paris Principles appropriately on national human rights institutions.

Concluding remarks
The ruling BNP led coalition's attempt to establish a National Human Rights Commission should not be a political exercise to differentiate it from its predecessors, Bangladesh Awami League. The process should be aimed at strengthening civil liberties and nascent democratic institutions in the country. The Bangladesh Government needs to make its position clear. It has already created resentments in both national and international human rights fraternity. The simple question of the day is: how long the government will take to establish a National Human Rights Commission for Bangladesh?

Abul Hasnat, a human rights advocate and legal researcher, is an expert on national human rights institutions. He can be contacted at <HRDev@postmark.net>.


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