International Standards: The Paris Principles
Examining the Record in Africa
Innovative and Positive Contributions by Commissions
The Role Of The International Community
The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights
The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights is playing a key role in promoting national human rights commissions. National human rights institutions are a major policy priority for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. That in itself has raised concerns for some critics of the U.N. human rights apparatus who perceive it as being too quick to engage in human rights education and "technical cooperation" at the expense of critical reporting. Others in the human rights community have serious concerns that this policy direction has evolved by default - a tribute to the dedication, energy, and hard work of the special advisor - without sufficient reflection by key policymakers within the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights to question the premise upon which this policy direction is based.
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights appears to have fully embraced the premise that the effective enjoyment of human rights calls for the establishment of a national human rights institution and is actively marketing human rights commissions. This presumes that the creation of a human rights commission will, in itself, contribute to the promotion and protection of human rights, an unfounded premise as this report shows. There has been no serious effort to question this premise in the internal evaluations of the work of the special advisor nor have there been any serious policy discussions, based on the record of existing national human rights institutions, to take stock and question whether this policy direction should expand, or even continue.
At this time, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is not playing an oversight role in discouraging the creation of a human rights commission if the political context is not right nor is it vigorously pushing for weak or compliant human rights institutions to be strengthened. The work of the special advisor has concentrated more on legislative compliance with the Paris Principles when recommending whether an institution should be created, rather than whether a commission is the most effective means to promote human rights within a specific political or cultural context. A more nuanced and advocacy-oriented approach would build and improve on the efforts of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to ensure that more national human rights commissions fulfill their potential.
Within the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights there are two separate assistance procedures for national human rights institutions which are not integrated to the extent that they should be. One is the technical assistance program where, in theory, support for national human rights institutions is integrated into other forms of assistance. Additionally, since 1995, there has been a special advisor on national institutions, regional arrangements and preventive strategies. This special advisor is tasked with providing technical advice and material assistance to governments creating human rights commissions as well as to existing commissions. This position is held by Brian Burdekin, a former Australian human rights commissioner.
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has been responsible for the normative standard setting in this area. The Paris Principles are now the starting point for discussions with governments on national human rights institutions. In creating a set of high standards, the U.N. has raised the threshold and made it more difficult for governments seeking international credibility to get away with forming completely empty national human rights institutions.
Support and advice from the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights to African governments has concentrated on encouraging states that are thinking about setting up a commission and providing advice to them in the early stages. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, has been very even-handed in providing technical advice, even to countries with clearly weak commissions. That is understandable, and even desirable. In Africa, the special advisor has provided a range of assistance from providing human rights trainings and detailed advice on proposed legislation, conducting needs assessments, and supporting regional interaction, among other things. African countries that have benefitted from the experience of the special advisor include Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Ethiopia, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Niger, Nigeria, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Togo, Uganda, and Zambia. U.N. support has also played a positive role in building regional interaction and organization among national human rights commissions.
In addition to a more coordinated and systematic inter-office system, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights needs to develop stronger ties with the human rights NGO community in a country in the course of providing technical advice to a national human rights commission. Greater coordination is also required with bilateral donors and with other U.N. agencies that are interacting with human rights commissions-such UNDP or U.N. peace-keeping, political, or human rights field operations-to ensure that U.N. financial and other support for human rights commissions is coordinated, consistent, and constructive. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights is best placed to build such bridges. Some initial efforts in this regard have been undertaken, such as a memorandum of understanding with UNDP, but more needs to be done for consistent and routine coordination and cooperation. This is particularly true for countries with problematic human rights records, as is the case with many African countries.
While the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is currently playing a strong role in fostering the creation of human rights commissions, its contribution could be augmented with more sustained follow-up advocacy to ensure that the human rights commissions it helps to create subsequently take a strong leading role in the protection and promotion of human rights. Discussions with governments and needs assessments have concentrated on propagating the standards rather than analyzing the manner in which the commissions are evolving and contributing to the promotion of human rights.
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has been extremely reticent about showing any public judgment about weak or compliant human rights commissions-even though the High Commissioner does not shy away from speaking out against abusive governments when necessary. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights now needs to play a more prominent role in pushing existing human rights commissions that are falling short to take the lead on human rights, especially as these bodies are maturing and proliferating.
The Office of the High Commissioner should be careful not to be seen to be lending legitimacy to weak human rights commissions that are apologists for government abuses. This does not mean that weak human rights commissions should not receive any support or help. There is obvious benefit to keeping communication channels open and responding to requests for advice and support from all human rights commissions, particularly in cases where beleaguered human rights commissioners with weak statutes or facing government pressures are showing some will do more than they are able. However, there are some cases in which a human rights commission sees its role a being a mouthpiece to defend repressive government policies or to deny the existence of abuses. In such cases, there should be a greater willingness by the High Commissioner for Human Rights to speak out, publicly if necessary, against action or inaction by compliant human rights commissions that undermines the promotion or protection of human rights. Equally, greater support should be extended to human rights commissions that exhibit a record of credible and legitimate work. Additionally, in the course of providing technical advice to a government or human rights commissions, the contribution of the human rights NGO community in the country should be more routinely solicited and integrated into the process.
Donor Governments and the U.N. Development Program
International donor pressure and financial support for human rights commissions has been an impetus for African governments to create human rights commissions, in part to reassure donors of their commitment to human rights. For example, both the Kenyan and Zambian human rights commissions were created shortly before donor meetings to discuss renewal of aid conditioned on human rights and economic reforms. International funding is increasingly available to governments who announce their intention to create a human rights commission. From the perspective of donors, funding for a human rights-type of endeavor, such as a government human rights commission, is an appealing and easily justifiable funding project, even to governments with flagging human rights records. Such a contribution is much less politically controversial than contributing to the NGO human rights community and furthers relations with the government.
Most government human rights commissions in Africa are subsidized by international donor governments and independent foundations. Although funding appears to be readily available for governments who announce their intention to create a human rights commission, there is much less follow up or advocacy by donor governments to sustain pressure on governments and their human rights commissioners for the creation of genuinely active institutions with public confidence. International assistance is often not based on the record of a commission nor conditioned on the creation of a strong independent commission. One finds in Africa, comparatively stronger human rights commissions that are short of funding, and weaker human rights commissions that have received funding.
Additionally, the enthusiasm of donor funding for national human rights commissions may shift limited funding away from the nongovernmental sector. For example, in 1999, the European Commission canceled a grant it had approved to a Tunisian NGO, the Ligue Tunisienne des Droits de l'Homme, after objections raised by the Tunisian government. Meanwhile, the European Commission provided a grant to the pro-government Higher Committee for Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
Another key donor is the U.N. Development Program (UNDP), an agency that works closely with governments in promoting sustainable development and which, recently, has begun to fund some human rights commissions through its management development and governance division. In January 1998, UNDP adopted a human rights policy, entitled "Integrating Human Rights with Sustainable Development" which defined the role that UNDP could play in the promotion and protection of human rights within its scope as a global development organization. This significant policy shift opened the path for UNDP offices to begin to provide funding for human rights activities, an area traditionally unaddressed by UNDP. Another significant event was the signing of a memorandum of understanding with the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in March 1998 for increased cooperation and collaboration between the two agencies. One of UNDP's priority focus areas is to provide support for institutions of governance, with an emphasis on building the human rights capacity of these institutions.25
As of August 1999, UNDP was providing funding for national human rights institutions in over twenty countries around the world, the majority in Eastern Europe. Many of these projects are joint activities with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.26 Country level support for African human rights commissions in recent years has been given by UNDP to the commissions in Benin, Kenya, Malawi, Mauritania, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Uganda.
UNDP is still coming to terms with how best to operationalize its new rights-based approach to development. With regard to national human rights commissions, UNDP funding appears to be somewhat ad hoc, depending on the resident representative in the country, rather than a more comprehensive global initiative to assist human rights commissions based on their record of activity. As a result, UNDP has given funding to some of the least credible human rights commissions on the African continent, and is not providing support to all of the strong or promising human rights commissions in Africa. Greater coordination by UNDP with the technical advisor in the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights may begin to address this need. But ultimately, the human rights focal point at UNDP headquarters needs to take more active oversight of this issue by providing information and recommendations to its resident representatives in the field on which human rights commissions deserve greater support.
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