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Protectors or Pretenders? - Government Human Rights Commissions in Africa, HRW Report 2001



International Standards: The Paris Principles

Important Factors

Examining the Record in Africa

Innovative and Positive Contributions by Commissions

Regional Iniatives

The Role Of The International Community





    International Standards: The Paris Principles

      In 1992, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights endorsed a set of internationally recognized principles concerning the status, powers and functioning of national human rights institutions (see Appendix for the full text). The U.N. Principles relating to the Status of National Institutions, known as the Paris Principles,1 which were subsequently endorsed by the U.N. General Assembly in 1993, set out the basic guidelines recommended by the U.N. in the establishment of a national human rights institution. The U.N. defines a national human rights institution as a government body established under the constitution or by law, whose functions are specifically designed to promote and protect human rights. The U.N. broadly groups national human rights institutions into three categories: human rights commissions, ombudsmen, and specialized national institutions designed to protect the rights of a particular vulnerable group (such as ethnic minorities, indigenous populations, refugees, women or children).2

      The Paris Principles stress, as fundamental features designed to contribute to independence, the need for:

    1. a founding constitutional or legislative statute;

    2. "as broad a mandate as possible;"

    3. an independent appointments procedures, with terms of office specified by law;

    4. a pluralistic and representative composition;

    5. regular and effective functioning;

    6. independence from the executive branch; and

    7. adequate funding.

      In recommending methods of operation, the Paris Principles call on governments to create national institutions that can take up any human rights matter at their own initiative, at the suggestion of government, and at the request of "any petitioner." Responsibilities should include:

    8. reporting and making recommendations to the government on human rights matters (including the adoption or amendment of national legislation and the reporting of situations of human rights violations);

    9. promoting conformity of national law and practice with international human rights standards, including the ratification of international human rights treaties;

    10. cooperating with national, regional and U.N. human rights bodies, including through contributions to country reports submitted to U.N. treaty bodies and committees; and

    11. human rights education programs.

    Most importantly, human rights commissions should be empowered to make public statements on their work directly or through the press.

      The Paris Principles direct human rights commissions to cooperate and consult with other bodies responsible for the protection and promotion of human rights. The Paris Principles specifically note the importance of effective cooperation with or through the presence of nongovernmental human rights groups, trade unions, concerned social and professional organizations, eminent scientists, philosophers, religious leaders, professors and qualified experts, parliament, and other government departments (in an advisory capacity only).
      The powers vested in a human rights commission should include the ability to seek settlement through "amicable settlement," "binding decisions," or "where necessary, on the basis of confidentiality." Petitioners should be informed of their rights and remedies and access to them promoted by human rights commissions. Complaints should be resolved by human rights commissions or forwarded to the appropriate authority. Human rights commissions should make recommendations to the government on human rights matters, including amendments or reforms of laws and practices.

      While the Paris Principles are a good starting point as normative principles, their limitations are best illustrated through an examination of the record of activities of human rights commissions. It is certainly true that compliance with the Paris Principles, many of which set a high standard, will augment the chances of ensuring an active and serious human rights commission. But, as this report illustrates, even compliance with these principles in a founding statute will not ultimately guarantee a robust commission without commissioners who are committed to making respect for human rights a reality and are willing to stand firm in the face of inevitable resistance from other government departments.

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