NATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS INSTITUTIONS AND ICHR, By Professor Brian Burdekin, AO

BY Prof Brian Burdekin : Professor is an international advisor to a number of national human rights institutions in Africa, Asia and Central and Eastern Europe. From 1995 to 2003, as Special Advisor on National Institutions to the first three United Nations High Commissioners for Human Rights, he conducted over 200 missions to 55 countries in Africa, the Asian-pacific, Europe and Latin America where governments or civil society had expressed a genuine interest in establishing an independent Human Rights Commission.
Prior to his appointment with the United Nations, Professor Burdekin was, from 1986 to 1994, the first Federal Human Rights Commissioner of Australia. In this capacity, in 1990-91, he was one of the key figures involved in preparing the United Nations‘ principles prescribing the minimum standards for national human right institutions, (the Paris Principles).
Proffesor Burdekin was the Team Leader for External Evaluation mission of ICHR conducted in 2007, and is a close friend and ally to ICHR, and he is highly acquainted with the work of the commission.

”Building strong human rights institutions at the country level is what in the long run will ensure that human rights are protected and advanced in a sustained manner. The emplacement or enhancement of a national protection system in each country, reflecting international human rights norms, should therefore be a principal objective of the Organization. These activities are especially important in countries emerging from conflict.” 

(Kofi Annan , “Strengthening of the United Nations: An Agenda for Further Change”, Report of the Secretary-General, 9 September 2002) 

In the last four decades most countries have signed, ratified or acceded to the major human rights treaties negotiated over the past 60 years under the auspices of the United Nations. When it comes to honouring those instruments, however, most States have fallen short in important respects. Many States, in all regions, have also failed to honour their obligations to cooperate with the international monitoring mechanisms established pursuant to these treaties. 

Regional human rights arrangements have been set up in all parts of the world, except in the Asia-Pacific region. These encompass: courts, commissions and related institutions to monitor human rights at the regional level. However, the reality is that no matter how sophisticated they are, international and regional mechanisms are, and will remain, inaccessible to the overwhelming majority of the world’s population. This is particularly true for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups in the poorest countries – those whose human rights are  most frequently violated and who are therefore most in need of protection. Effective implementation and monitoring of international human rights standards must therefore be accomplished primarily at the national level. 

In 1991 a conference convened by the UN drafted the “Principles Relating to the Status of National Institutions” (now commonly referred to as the “Paris Principles”). The World Conference on Human Rights in 1993 reaffirmed the importance of NHRIs, and there are now over 60 which comply with the Paris Principles – at least in terms of their legislative mandate. The Principles prescribe several criteria essential for NHRIs to be effective. These include: a clearly defined, broad-based human rights mandate – incorporated in legislation or, preferably, constitutionally entrenched; independence from government; membership that broadly reflects the composition of society; accessibility; appropriate cooperation with civil society, including non-governmental organisations; and adequate resources. 

While independence enshrined in an adequate, constitutional or legislative mandate is essential, the effectiveness of NHRIs ultimately depends on the integrity, ability and commitment of those appointed to lead them. No institution has demonstrated this more consistently than the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights. 

National Human Rights Institutions have come a long way in little more than a decade. Since the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Paris Principles in 1993, the number of NHRIs in every region has increased dramatically. Substantial challenges remain in strengthening the legislative mandates of many NHRIs, improving their accessibility and enhancing their effectiveness. Nevertheless, in many countries they have become a major force in monitoring governments’ compliance with their international treaty obligations, promoting an understanding of human rights and addressing and redressing human rights violations. 

Other national “institutions” on which NHRIs’ capacity to carry out their mandate heavily depends – including the legislature and the judiciary – are still weak or corrupt in many countries. While NHRIs must not intrude on the important “monitoring” functions of these institutions and of other independent agencies, their responsibility for ensuring equal protection of the law and the harmonisation of domestic legislation with international human rights norms means that they will continue to have a substantial stake in assisting to improve the performance of these other institutions and cooperating with them in appropriate ways. 

At the international level NHRIs are playing an increasingly active and important role in assisting the international treaty bodies mandated to monitor the most important human rights instruments – both by providing them with information and by following up their recommendations. They are also assisting the United Nations Special Rapporteurs in a number of important areas and contributing significantly to debates in several international fora. The role of NHRIs in developing appropriate international norms is increasingly being recognised; they most recently played a significant part in the development of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture also accords them an important prevention and monitoring role. 

I am proud to have been associated with the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights since its establishment. It operates in one of the most difficult and challenging environments confronting any NHRI. It has won international respect for its commitment to promoting and protecting human rights, the integrity and independence of its leadership and the dedication of its staff.