Human Rights advocacy
Expectation from National Human Rights Commission
Dr. Uttam Kumar Das
OVER the last week two developments related to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) have been headlined in news reports. The President of the People's Republic of Bangladesh has appointed a Chairman and six members to the NHCR on 22 June. It is likely the NHRC is to get a long waited and full-fledged body. This is hopefully to contribute full functioning of the newly established apex body in charge of protection and promotion of human rights in the country.
Just a day before the appointment, the outgoing Chairman of the NHRC, Justice Amirul Kabir Chowdhury disclosed (on 21 June) that most of the complaints (total 147) the agency has received during the last one year are against the law enforcers. The veteran Judge urged for proper training on human rights for the member of the law enforcement agencies. (Source: The Daily Star, June 22, 2010). The issue needs serious attention of all concerned.
Let me start with focusing on the newly appointed Chairman and Members to the NHRC. The Chairman, Dr. Mizanur Rahman who has been a prominent Professor of Law at the University of Dhaka is a well-known personality as well in the arena of human rights education in Bangladesh and beyond. He has been a proponent of “justice for the poor” through expanding human rights education and activism in Bangladesh.
Professor Rahman has established a landmark in human rights education through organizing a two-week annual summer school under the auspices of the Empowerment through Law of the Common People (ELCOP). This has been an innovative and effective initiative to introduce human rights as an integral part of legal education in the absent of a formal opportunity to do so. The course has drawn interest from meritorious students from the SAARC region and beyond. I had the opportunity to be part of the initiative over the years [while serving with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and International Organization for Migration (IOM)].
During the last one year, I had been affiliated as a Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow (Fulbright Scholar) with the Human Rights Center at the University of Minnesota Law School in the United States. Among other activities, I have closely monitored the activities of an academic institute (i.e. University of Minnesota) and a state organ (Minnesota Department of Human Rights-MDHR) in promoting and protecting human rights.
The MDHR introduces it as a “…neutral state agency that investigates charges of illegal discrimination, ensures that businesses seeking state contracts are in compliance with equal opportunity requirements, and strives to eliminate discrimination by educating Minnesotans about their rights and responsibilities under the state Human Rights Act.” Its values are: quality, timeliness, efficiency service, fairness and respect. So, the implementation mechanism of human rights is through educating people about their rights and responsibilities among others.
Then, the question of human rights education comes in. In this regard, let me look into the role of the University of Minnesota. The University's Law School has an International Human Rights Law concentration among others in courses (i.e. LL.M. and J.D.). Around five clinics (out of 17) focus on human rights issues. The Human Rights Center at the Law School has been pioneering in running online Human Rights Library, programs incorporating human rights in the school curriculum, and training teachers, practitioners, and activists among others.
Apart from that, the College of Liberal Arts has a comprehensive Human Rights Program for undergraduate and graduate students. It has been directed by Professor Barbara A. Frey who has been a pioneer in human rights activism in the U.S. and beyond, and a former UN Rapporteur. [I had the opportunity to be taught a course on Human Rights Advocacy by her]. Throughout my academic and professional experience in the area of human rights, I got a simple understanding that it (human rights) is a matter of culture and practice. It starts from individual (including myself). One could orient him or herself on the concept of human rights through education and training. Then, the point of practice comes in.
It is hardly possible to protect, promote and implement human rights unless we start to practice it at our individual level. Political stunt hardly work. That is why the initiation of human rights education Bangladesh should be the priority. This is not a subject for law students only. It (human rights) has various dimensions alongside the legal one.
It should be for mass education. That means human rights should be incorporated in the curriculum starting from the primary and secondary levels. There should be opportunity for advanced studies and research on human rights. Thus, we could build up a culture of human rights in our future generations; will have professionals as well. This would contribute to establishing rule of law, accountability and strengthening the democratic processes and institutions.
However, unfortunately, the traditional donor agencies or development partners hardly pay attention to the institutional educational aspects of human rights in Bangladesh. So, far there is no single institution in the country which could claim any significant initiative or contribution in human rights education, research and practice. Forget about centre of excellence.
The Law Schools are also likely ignorant and reluctant in this regard. Without a better human rights education, we could not expect pro-human rights lawyers and judges. This is a hard reality. However, the good thing is that the newly appointed Chairman of NHRC, Professor Mizanur Rahman has been an active academic himself. He has already acknowledged (in an interview with BBC) the necessity of expanding opportunity for human rights education and training in the country. Now, how it comes to real implementation that is a point. Prominent Human Rights Advocate, Adilur Rahman Khan (in an interview again with BBC) highlighted some issues as a matter of priority for the NHCR. The alleged extra-judicial killings by the members of the law enforcement agencies topped the list.
This extra-judicial killing is against the constitutional provision of the country and obligations under international human rights treaties as well. This is not a crime against the individuals or their family only; it is also a serious and gross human rights violations. A pro-active initiative of the NHCR to knock the government to stop such practices is badly needed. Mere so-called investigation would not suffice unless it is independent, professional, accountable, and finally there is no exemplary punishment for the responsible one and compensation for victims' families finally.
Recently, I have interviewed Ms. Carolyn Abong, the Head of the Research, Policy and Legal Affairs Unit of Kenyan National Human Rights Commission. She had been a Humphrey Fellow along with me. According to her, the National Human Rights Commission establishes a legal-foundation for protection and promotion of human rights in a given country. Though the Human Rights Act in Bangladesh has certain limitations, however, there are lots to gain if it is implemented effectively. The good thing is that the Act has endorsed those as human rights which are guaranteed in Part III of the Constitution and those are also guaranteed in the international treaties ratified by Bangladesh and subsequently adopted through domestic legislation.
The NHRC in Bangladesh has jurisdiction over receiving complaints and investigations; visiting and monitoring of human rights situations in hospitals, jails, detention and correctional centres; reviewing and studying of national and international laws, and putting forward recommendations; researching human rights, and organizing related professional and institutional trainings; publishing and publicising on human rights; coordinating human rights activities by public and private organizations; organizing related conferences and symposiums, and providing legal aid.
Comparing the mandate of the NHRC in Bangladesh with that of Kenya (which is internationally considered as a model institution), I find that ours is wide and expanded. It is comparable with that of India (there is similarity as well). The NHRC in Bangladesh has the mandate even to investigate the matter of an extra-judicial killing [Section 11 (i) (a) of the Human Rights Act]. However, it might not be in a position right now to do so with regard to its logistics and technical capacities. That is why it is the responsibility of the government to ensure necessary support to the NHRC so that it could perform full-fledged. Respective donor agencies, non-governmental organizations, civil society and professional groups and media among others could joint hand and play an pro-active role so that the NHRC could work effectively in promoting and protecting human rights.
Going back to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, it organizes an annual conference in early December to mark the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It showcases activities of various partnering public and private organizations alongside parallel seminars and workshops on various issues of human rights. [I have attended such a gala event this year on 4 December]. Our NHRC could also consider such events not only in the capital but also at districts levels. It could be over a period of time.
The writer is an Advocate in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, a Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow (U.S.A., 2009-2010).