The state of National Human Rights Institutions – a global view

National bodies tasked with promoting and protecting human rights in countries around the world, say they are not as effective as they should be. A global survey of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) has found that many of their recommendations to governments for human rights improvements are not followed-up. In some regions only 20 percent of respondents rated the government’s response as ‘good’.

National Human Rights Institutions are independent institutions in charge of the promotion and monitoring of human rights - © UNICEF/Roger LeMoyneThe survey findings will be presented and discussed at three NHRI meetings in Rabat, including an International Coordinating Committee Bureau (1-2 November); the VII Regional Conference of African NHRIs (3-5 November) and a Workshop on NHRIs as human rights defenders (6-7 November) held in cooperation with the NHRI in Morocco.

The survey report says that the institutions feel under-appreciated. About half questioned complained about their relationship with public bodies, such as the executive, parliament, the judiciary or the police, which they believe attach little value to their work.

NHRIs are independent national institutions in charge of the promotion and monitoring of human rights in a given nation and are required to conform to the international standards, the so-called Paris Principles. Their job is to assist governments, state institutions and civil society organizations in enhancing the promotion and protection of human rights.

The NHRIs are in effect partner organizations of the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) contributing to the implementation of human rights principles on the ground. OHCHR conducted a survey in January 2009 to assess what improvements may be needed, how the Institutions themselves assess their internal functioning and how they can be better supported by OHCHR. More than sixty of the one hundred institutions contacted directly responded to the survey, along with others who were able to access the questionnaire on the Internet. Their responses have provided a snapshot of NHRI's around the world.

The survey also found that the Institutions have independence and funding problems and noted “the influence of government departments or ministries over [NHRIs’] budget allocation”. Independence from governments is critical for the NHRIs and to achieve this, the survey recommends that “public funds should be provided through a mechanism that is not under direct government control”.

Given the relative youth of most National Institutions – most are under 20 years old – the overall results are considered positive. The Institutions are very involved in the protection of human rights. In fact, the survey said that a great majority of respondents “are carrying out activities relating to core protection issues like the prevention of torture and ill-treatment, such as detention monitoring and complaints handling”. This protection capacity of NHRIs, which could make them a first port of call for those in need nationally, should, however, be significantly strengthened. 

National Institutions are in a unique position to influence and work with politicians and public authorities. OHCHR has recommended that the human rights institutions pursue relationships with fellow organizations both in government and among civil society organizations. Through joint activities with these organizations that have common goals, NHRIs will be able to increase awareness generally of human rights and provide a greater degree of protection to victims of violations and most vulnerable groups.

30 October 2009