(Editor's note- This is an excerpt of the official report on the New Delhi workshop prepared by the Forum secretariat.)
The Asia-Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions held its second regional workshop in New Delhi (September 10-12, 1997) and discussed the concept of national institutions, developments in the region toward the establishment of national institutions, ways of strengthening national institutions and plans for cooperative action.
As stated in the official report, the workshop
reaffirmed fundamental principles relevant to the operations of national human rights institutions, such as the universality and indivisibility of human rights and the importance of the Paris Principles;
welcomed steps toward the establishment of national institutions of various countries;
undertook to enhance cooperation with non-government organizations;
resolved to increase the Forum's efforts in the field of technical assistance;
undertook to consider ways of responding effectively to the increasing case load of complaints of human rights violations;
decided to develop specific mechanisms in the area of regional human rights jurisprudence;
condemned the practice of child sexual exploitation and decided to exchange information on relevant laws and practices;
decided to work toward the production of a video program as a contribution to the commemoration of the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights;
requested the United Nations to continue its assistance to and cooperation with national human rights institutions.
A great deal of valuable exchange of experience through informal discussions involving not only member national institutions, but also governments, UN representatives, human rights commissions of seven Indian States, and NGOs were likewise held.
a. role of national institutions
The importance of the independence of national institutions and their ability to pursue complaints fearlessly was emphasized in the discussions. In this context, adherence to the Paris Principles was stressed as central to the work of national institutions. It was noted that the Principles were recognized by the United Nations. Governments were urged to establish national institutions in accordance with the Paris Principles or, where established already and if necessary, to bring them into accord with the Principles.
The universality of human rights principles was stressed. It was noted that this had already been addressed by the international community at the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights in 1993 and had been endorsed in the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action. It was important therefore not to fight past battles. At the same time, and while endorsing universality, it was also noted that the strength of cultural relativism should not be underestimated and that cultural legitimacy would facilitate the promotion of human rights. There was a need to confront ill-informed positions. Speakers noted the importance of promoting a culture of human rights and of wider dissemination of knowledge about human rights. In this context, speakers noted that there was a wide divide between urban and rural populations and there was a need to pay attention to the needs of the latter.
International human rights instruments as benchmarks for the promotion of human rights was endorsed and noted that the mandates of national institutions invariably referred to international standards. National institutions rejected calls for revision of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
A need to recognize the connection between civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights and to avoid the development of contending emphases in the promotion and protection of human rights is seen. A cooperative and integrated approach was to be preferred.
There was some discussion about the respective roles of national institutions and non-governmental organizations. Speakers noted the need for cooperation between national institutions and NGOs. At the same time, it was noted that their roles were different, with NGOs usually having a more specific focus, while national institutions had a broader approach. A non-government organization view was expressed that national institutions should have the power to compel governments to take action on human rights issues. However, national institutions considered that, while they should undertake inquiries fearlessly, they had to work within existing legal systems and could not act as a parallel government.
The approach of national institutions should be a practical one, particularly through a focus on grassroots work. A suggestion was made that public hearings could be useful, for example, in relation to the rights of women.
b. regional cooperation
There was some discussion about region-wide cooperation on human rights. The view was expressed that the establishment of genuinely independent national institutions and a forum facilitating their cooperation offered the most promising means to that end. One speaker noted that activity had so far been "top-down" and suggested there should also be "bottom-up" activity to assist in countries where national institutions had not been established.
The governments of Mongolia, Bangladesh and Papua New Guinea reported the preparation of draft bills on the establishment of their respective national institutions that will be considered by the parliament in early 1998.
The Philippine Commission reported that its mandate was still restricted and that it had drafted a bill that would give it prosecutorial powers. It was important that political leaders exercised the political will to facilitate the work of national human rights institutions.
The Sri Lankan Commission reported that it had been established in March 1997 after the passage of legislation in 1996. It had inherited the structures of the Human Rights Task Force but it would be some time before the Commission was fully functional.
The Government of Nepal indicated that legislation providing for the establishment of a national institution had already been promulgated. The Government was reviewing relevant laws and regulations and the institution would be established in 1998.
(A new constitution has been adopted in Thailand in late 1997. A provision on the establishment of a commission on human rights is included.)
A representative of Iran's Islamic Human Rights Commission outlined the Commission's structure and activities, including on complaint handling, publications, prison visits, the monitoring of the presidential elections and the consideration of international instruments. The representative noted, however, that the Commission's activity was within the framework of Islamic values.
The Republic of Korea said it was looking at case studies of other countries' experience with regard to the establishment of national human rights institutions. It intended to establish a Commission.
The Fiji Government said that the amended Constitution of Fiji provided for the establishment of a human rights commission and consideration was being given to the implementation of this provision. It would, however, take some time to work through the issues.
c. Strengthening the functioning of national institutions
1)Grievance redressal mechanisms and procedures
The Indian Commission noted that the situation in India was particularly characterized by the sheer size of the country and the population. There was a need to find ways to cope with the consequent workload. Prevention was of course an important element but commissions also needed to get procedures right. High standards of management were important.
The New Zealand Commission noted that the volume of complaints could grind an organization down. The pressure of responding to complaints can prevent a commission from dealing with other important areas of their mandates, such as human rights promotion. There was a need to develop procedures to deal with backlogs.
The New Zealand, Australian and Canadian Commissions pointed to the importance of computerization of complaints handling as a way of increasing efficiency and accuracy. The Australian Commission separately made a video presentation of the computer program it uses.
It was suggested that the Forum consider the development of a paper on complaint handling, assessing comparative developments and suggesting possible means whereby national institutions could handle complaints more effectively. A further mechanism that could ease the complaints workload would be for commissions to undertake national inquiries, whereby they could look at systemic issues rather than dealing with them as individual complaints.
The Canadian Human Rights Foundation informed the Forum that it was working with the Philippine Commission on Human Rights on the development of a regional training program for staff of national institutions. (A pilot training program was held in February 1998 in the Philippines.)
The Philippine Commission outlined its objective of establishing a center in each of 42,000 communities (Barangay). So far it had established 6000 Barangay Human Rights Action Centers. It said it needed to collaborate with others in meeting the challenges it faced.
The Forum Secretariat advised of a regional meeting on media training to be held within the coming months, to be funded by the New Zealand Government.
The New Zealand Commission reported on the staff exchange activity it had been involved in. It said that all commissions needed assistance, including that of New Zealand.
d. Cooperative action : Development of human rights jurisprudence
The Forum agreed in principle on the proposal for judicial advisory panel and decided that a Forum Working Group (consisting of the Indian and Australian Commissions) should consider the details and present recommendations to Forum members. The Forum asked the Secretariat to develop a mechanism for the collation and dissemination of human rights jurisprudence.
e. Cooperative action
1). Combating sexual exploitation of children
The workshop condemned the practice of child sexual exploitation. Several noted that criminal sanctions had not been effective and underlined the value of a longer-term, preventive approach. This included addressing underlying social causes, particularly through the implementation of compulsory primary education, along with targeted measures to keep girls in school longer, as well as public awareness campaigns and initiatives to assist the communities from which the children came.
Support for the proposed Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child was expressed. The forum's focus on child sexual exploitation was considered. Forum members resolved to transmit this view to their respective governments. The Forum requested the Secretariat to collate and disseminate among Forum members information on relevant laws and practices.
2). Observance of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Discussion focused on what the Forum and its members could do that would meaningfully contribute to the commemoration of the anniversary and would promote human rights in the region. Speakers suggested that each member should take some action. The view was expressed that commissions should not become involved in activity for its own sake.
The New Zealand Commission said it was considering sending a questionnaire to other commissions as to whether they might be interested in being involved in a video program that New Zealand intends to produce. New Zealand also suggested that an additional day should be set aside in the 1998 Forum Workshop for a seminar on the UDHR. The South African Commission said it would have a full program of activities for the anniversary and intended to elaborate a national human rights action plan as a commemorative activity.
The Forum decided to aim to produce an appropriate video program and to give the UDHR prominence in technical cooperation and information activities.
For more information contact: Mr. Kieren Fitzpatrick, Secretariat Director, Asia-Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions c/o Australian Human Rights Commission, Level 8 Piccadilly Tower, 133 Castlereagh Street, Sydney NSW 2000 Australia, tel (612) 9284-96 44; fax (612) 9284-9825; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; website: www.apf.hreoc.gov.au