Recently, there has been some discussion in Swedish media regarding the role of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) in the promotion and protection of human rights, particularly in Myanmar. Given the rapidly growing interest in the creation and strengthening of NHRIs, and the world community’s recognition of the important roles these institutions can play, it is important to increase understanding of their mandates, powers and functions.
NHRIs are official, independent State institutions established by law to promote and protect human rights. They have broad mandates for the promotion and protection of human rights. The establishing laws prescribe their functions and should provide them with the powers necessary to perform those functions. In all cases, NHRIs have functions of researching, advising and educating on human rights issues. In most cases, they also have responsibility to investigate violations of human rights and to seek to resolve complaints of violations.
NHRIs should be established in conformity with the Principles relating to the status of national institutions for the promotion and protection of human rights (the Paris Principles). These Principles, endorsed by the UN General Assembly in 1993, provide a set of minimum requirements for NHRIs. They are the standard by which the structure, form and legal basis of a NHRI is assessed in determining whether the institution receives international recognition. They do not ensure the effectiveness of a NHRI, only that it conforms in law, structure, mandate and scope of operations with the minimum standards acceptable internationally. The Paris Principles also require that NHRIs have guarantees of independence.
The Raoul Wallenberg Institute has over 15 years of experience supporting the establishment and strengthening of NHRIs around the world. The Institute has developed a distinct methodology to strengthen and support NHRIs. This model of support focuses on all facets of the institution, starting from ensuring basic operational and human rights capacities all the way up to its functional capacities leading towards greater compliance with the Paris Principles. As in other areas of activity, the Institute does not engage in monitoring of state compliance.
There are many challenges working with NHRIs, particularly in countries which have had lengthy periods of autocratic rule by military regimes. For example, following its establishment during the Suharto regime, the Indonesian National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) faced many difficulties along the way, but benefitted from engagement and support to become a respected NHRI today. It is thus important to have a long-term perspective concerning NHRI capacity development, and also to continuously assess and review the cooperation, being prepared to discontinue cooperation in the event it is considered no longer feasible.
RWI is well aware that some criticism has been directed against the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC). We are continuously working to strengthen the Commission, including by taking informed criticism into account in the design and implementation of our capacity development activities.
Since cooperation with MNHRC started in late 2012, RWI’s support to the Commission has focused on strengthening human rights knowledge capacities of the Commission, in recognition of the fact that such knowledge was critically lacking and would have to be enhanced before further developing capacity in other areas. RWI has also provided important advice in relation to the development of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission Law, given the importance of a strong legal mandate as a basis for the Commission’s work.
In Myanmar, as in many other countries, there will be continued challenges in fully realising, in accordance with international standards, the important role a NHRI can play for the promotion and protection of human rights in society. Whether the best solution in such circumstances is to turn away and leave a NHRI to fend for itself, or continue to work with a long-term perspective for positive human rights change, will need to be constantly assessed.
Read more about NHRIs and RWI’s work with NHRIs including in Myanmar: