National human rights institutions
as a catalyst for change
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is with great pleasure that I join you today as the Canadian Human Rights Commission celebrates this year its 30th anniversary.
Later this afternoon, some of you will be attending the Diversity 2007 conference. I would like to commend both the Canadian Human Rights Commission's Discrimination Prevention Forum and the Canada Public Service Agency's Duty to Accommodate for this new cooperative initiative. Promoting diversity as an asset, as these organizations do, to enrich our workplaces and our communities is a goal we should all share.
Il est très opportun que le thème de la diversité soit si présent dans vos délibérations, puisqu’il est l’un des thèmes dominants de la réflexion en matière de protection des droits humains non seulement au Canada, mais partout dans le monde. La promotion et la protection de l’égalité ainsi que de la non-discrimination constituent la pierre angulaire des grands principes internationaux ancrés dans la Déclaration Universelle des Droits de l’Homme, qui célèbre “la dignité et la valeur de la personne humaine, dans l'égalité des droits des hommes et des femmes pour instaurer de meilleures conditions de vie dans une liberté plus grande.”
La poursuite des idéaux d’égalité se heurte présentement à deux grands axes de confrontation. Après les acquis de la notion d’égalité substantive, rejetant un formalisme qui masquait les véritables iniquités, de nouveaux défis ont fait surface. Liés à la mondialisation, ces défis sont alimentés par la mouvance migratoire, par l’ascendance des fondamentalismes religieux, et par un certain relativisme culturel qui perçoit les droits humains comme projet occidental servant des intérêts avant tout politiques. Dans un tel contexte, la diversité est facilement instrumentalisée pour rejeter un modèle de société pluraliste, tolérante et inclusive au profit d’un monolithisme culturel qui affirme sa différence en se tenant à l’écart du cadre international des droits humains. Loin de chercher à réconcilier l’égalité et la diversité, ce projet affirme l’incompatibilité de ces droits fondamentaux avec des valeurs religieuses, morales, culturelles, historiques ou autres qui le plus souvent portent atteinte autant à l’égalité qu’à la diversité. J’ai eu l’occasion d’aborder cette question en m’adressant à la réunion interministérielle des pays non-alignés tenue à Téhéran début septembre. J’y ai souligné, entre autres, le danger d’utiliser le droit à la diversité culturelle pour écarter les normes internationales de protection des droits humains, particulièrement les droits des femmes et des minorités à l’égalité et à la non-discrimination.
Les tensions reliées à la diversité sont mieux gérées, à mon avis, dans le cadre juridique international des droits humains que dans le marchandage politique. L’avantage de cet encadrement juridique est qu’il se porte garant à part égale de l’universalité et de la diversité. Les principes sur lesquels il repose ont été négociés et acceptés dans un environnement international qui à la fois reflète et transcende la multiplicité de cultures, de religions et de traditions représentées par l’ensemble des Etats membres des Nations-Unies. Tous les Etats ont ratifiés au moins un, et 80% des Etats ont ratifiés 4 ou plus des 7 traités internationaux classiques en matière de droit humains. Plusieurs normes en la matière font maintenant partie du droit coutumier, et lient donc tous les Etats sans exception. Dans cet espace juridique bien défini, aucune culture ni aucune école de pensée ne peut se substituer aux principes fondamentaux qui prohibent, par exemple, la torture, la discrimination raciale et la discrimination envers les femmes. Les normes internationales sont donc le garant de l’universalité des droits, et assurent par leur cohésion et réciprocité les valeurs communes qui cimentent la communauté internationale.
In many ways, the Canadian Human Rights Commission in particular, and national human rights institutions in general, embody the strategic goals of the United Nations in ensuring the application of international human rights norms at the national level. Human rights protection can only be achieved by national actors operating under the international normative framework, and in cooperation with the international human rights protection machinery. In that broad context, national human rights institutions represent central elements of strong national human rights protection systems and they have undergone, worldwide, ground-breaking changes over the past two decades.
The potential centrality of NHRIs had been highlighted in Paris in 1991 with the first International Workshop on National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights. The conclusions of this meeting were presented to the General Assembly and endorsed and adopted as resolution 48/134 on 20 December 1993, and became known as “the Paris Principles”.
As you know, these principles have become the internationally recognized benchmarks against which to assess the structure, mandate and performance of a NHRI. They are universal in their application. Their key requirements include: a guarantee for NHRI independence by a statute or the Constitution; (2) autonomy from the Government; (3) pluralistic representation; (4) a broad mandate covering both human rights promotion and protection; (5) adequate resources; and (6) adequate powers of investigation.
The Paris Principles are used by the United Nations as the leading tool in their capacity building activities for national human rights institutions, and also serve as the guiding principles for the International Coordinating Committee of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (ICC), the global coordinating body of national human rights institutions, in its review of individual NHRIs.
The ICC meets annually to discuss a wide range of issues of interest, such as the interaction between NHRIs and human rights treaty monitoring bodies, as well as the Human Rights Council, or to tackle thematic issues of crucial concern, including disabilities, migration, and the prevention of torture.
A major function of the ICC is the accreditation of NHRIs, through which it reviews the compliance of NHRIs with the Paris Principles. The ICC will accord “A status” accreditation to a NHRI, if it assesses that it is in full compliance with the Paris Principles. The number of NHRIs with “A status” accreditation has grown from 15 in 1999, 45 in 2003 to 59 today.
The promotion – and particularly the protection – of human rights can only be assured by the interaction of an entire framework of national institutions working in a political environment that is committed to the values and principles embodied in human rights instruments. While the role of NHRIs has considerably expanded over the past years, their effectiveness is interlinked with the presence or absence, in any given country, of an independent judiciary, a properly functioning administration of justice, a representative parliament not totally subservient to the executive, and a network of strong and dynamic civil society organizations.
The mandates of national human rights institutions vary greatly from country to country. While some operate in partnership with other specialized bodies and organs and therefore focus primarily on issues related to equality and due process, many other NHRIs are also entrusted with the virtually exclusive oversight of human rights violations arising from arbitrary arrest and detention, the use of torture and all forms of abuse by law enforcement and security forces, human trafficking and the protection of migrant workers. This work is performed in addition to activities devoted to combating the more common variety but deeply invidious forms of abuse, such as gender and racial discrimination that no country has yet fully eradicated.
In that context, any erosion, real or perceived, of the independence of the national human rights institution can have catastrophic consequences on the life and safety of rights holders for whom there is no other possible available source of protection. I have just returned from Sri Lanka where disappearances, abductions and killings, including of children, remain uninvestigated, and obviously unpunished, to the point that people in Jaffna voluntarily surrender to the Human Rights Commission for their own protection, trusting no one else. These “surrendees,” as they are called, are then kept in common prisons, since there is no other venue to ensure their safety. In the meantime, public trust in the commission and in its effectiveness is being compromised by a widespread perception that the appointment of the current commissioners, not in conformity with the constitutional requirements, has affected their independence. Indeed, the “A status” awarded by the ICC to the Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission will be reviewed shortly in light of the present circumstances.
In the same way, there are forces at play in Afghanistan intent on curtailing the independence of the Afghan National Human Rights Commission. This is occurring in an environment where human rights protection is hardly a luxury, and where, under the leadership of Dr Sima Samar, the commission established a record of integrity, courage and effectiveness, particularly in advocating for and end to the long-standing impunity that warlords and others have unjustly enjoyed and continue to secure for themselves.
In these cases, as in many others, particularly in societies at war or emerging from conflict, which are profoundly polarized and where vulnerable groups are exposed to great risks, the question of the independence, effectiveness, and public confidence in human rights institutions is literally of vital importance.
Of central relevance is also the role that NHRIs play or can perform everywhere specifically in torture prevention. National human rights institutions are expected to become even more active with the entry into force of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture. There is great expectation that they will take on a formal role as national preventive mechanisms in this context, and work closely with the Subcommittee of the OPCAT in achieving the objective of the Protocol, that is the prevention of torture, through a system of regular visits to places of detention where people are deprived of their liberty. A survey of current practices on torture prevention by some 35 NHRIs has already been undertaken by OHCHR and made available to the members of the Subcommittee.
Ladies and Gentlemen
Credible national institutions are also playing an increasingly important role at the regional and international levels. In Asia and Africa, for example, regional networking is an empowering and progressive feature of their work. The impact of national human rights institutions in Geneva represents a growing and positive aspect of the work of the new Human Rights Council. NHRIs holding “A status” ICC accreditation participate in the proceedings of the Council. Their input is likely to increase with the coming into effect of the Universal Periodic Review process. This feature of the Council, which represent the most distinguishing and innovative procedure of this new body vis-à-vis its predecessor’s methods of work, is a process through which the human rights record of all UN member states will be examined at regular intervals. Some 48 states will be publicly examined every year under the UPR, and national human rights institutions will have a role to play at every stage of the process. In the preparation of their own reports, States are encouraged to gather the information for the review through a national consultation process with all relevant stakeholders, including NHRIs. These same institutions can also provide input to the UPR for inclusion in the summary of stakeholders’ information to be prepared by OHCHR and taken into consideration by the Council. Finally, accredited national institutions will be able to take the floor in the deliberations of the Council on the matter under review.
In sum, NHRIs are key links between the national and international dimension of human rights. Thus, they should seize every opportunity of interaction and involvement at the international level in order to help promote change at the domestic level. I hope, in particular, to see appropriate national human rights institutions play a leadership role in the implementation of the newly adopted Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Convention, which I urge Canada to ratify at the earliest opportunity, requires that States Parties maintain, strengthen, designate or establish a framework, including one or more independent national mechanisms to promote, protect and monitor implementation of the Convention. Moreover, the Convention calls on States Parties to take into account the Paris Principles when designating or establishing such mechanisms. This represents the ideal combination of internationally articulated norms with effective national implementation mechanisms.
In concluding, let me congratulate Jennifer Lynch both for her election as Chair of the ICC and for being chosen as the new Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission.
I would also like to point out that next year we will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The pursuit of the Declaration ideals required and will continue to demand that resources, initiatives, and good will are pooled within and across national borders. Above all, I see before us the opportunity to reinforce the truly universal character of the rights and freedoms embodied in the Declaration. As we confront, locally and globally, the perennial search for the proper balance between our desire to be safe and our need to be free, there is simply no better place than the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on which to anchor our quest. It is in the pursuit of our individual entitlements that we can advance the equal entitlements of others. When we deny to any one, here or abroad, what we claim for ourselves, we reject the very notion of universal rights. But as we work together, here and abroad, to construct an effective network of protection of all human rights for all, then we will leave to the next generation a legacy as enduring as that bestowed upon us sixty years ago.
Thank you very much for including me in today’s event and in your celebrations.