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FOCUS June 2002 Volume 28

National Plans for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and the Strengthening of National Human Rights Capacities

Vitit Muntarbhorn

By 2000 a number of Asia-Pacific countries had adopted various national human rights plans. These included Australia, Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand. In 2001 the possibility of preparing such plans was being discussed by the following: Mongolia, Nepal, Jordan, Gaza and New Zealand.

How do they converge? While, of course, national plans vary according to their specific situations, there are some areas where they share common ground, including the following:

  1. Linkages between the national setting and international human rights standards, implying that the latter can help to raise standards nationally, while not forgetting local wisdom;
  2. Coverage of at least civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, with varying emphases on individual and collective rights, related obligations/duties, and target issues, such as education, health, shelter, employment, poverty, and freedom of association and expression;
  3. Target groups in vulnerable positions, such as women, children, the elderly and those with disability, to be assisted and protected;
  4. Suggested reforms of laws, policies, programmes, practices and mechanisms to improve human rights promotion and protection;
  5. Support for national institutions, such as national human rights commissions for the promotion and protection of human rights;
  6. Partnership with key government agencies to implement the national human rights plan;
  7. Capacity-building of power groups such as the police and judiciary to respect human rights;
  8. Cooperation with civil society, including non-governmental organizations (NGOs), in the formulation and implementation of the plan;
  9. Allocation of resources to implement the plan;
  10. Establishment or identification of a national monitoring mechanism to follow-up the implementation of the plan.

The emergence of these plans highlights various challenges as follows:

  1. The preparation phase. The period for preparing the national human rights plan demands a participatory process whereby NGOs, members of civil society, government personnel and other actors need to be well consulted. The national experiences vary on this. The preparation of some of the national plans mentioned above was participatory, e.g. one draft plan was subjected to public hearings throughout the whole country before it was adopted. Yet, another national plan mentioned above was formulated by the government sector rather than by a participatory process.
  2. The implementation phase. The issue here is how to implement the plan effectively. Several of the plans mentioned above have led to key law and policy reforms, and these are much welcome. However, the implementation is at times weak and lacks adequate participation from the general public. The resources for effective implementation have not been forthcoming on some fronts.
  3. The evaluation phase. A key concern is to have a monitoring mechanism to trace and track the implementation of the plan, and to ensure transparent evaluation. While some of the plans mentioned have such mechanism, evaluation has not been systematic or participatory enough in some areas.
  4. The follow-up phase. This implies the need for follow-up activities, such as reforms, which are recommended by the evaluation. On a positive note, some countries have extended the period of their national plans, or adopted new plans to follow the initial plans, so as to provide opportunities for more follow-up. However, this process is dependent upon the quality of the implementation of the plans and related evaluation. The impact of the plans has to be tested qualitatively rather than quantitatively.

    In this regard, it is worth noting that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has supported the preparation of a handbook which helps to indicate the various steps in the development and implementation of such plans.

    Recent examples of the evolution of national plans can be seen from two countries. First, the example of Thailand. The 5-year plan was adopted by the Thai Cabinet in 2000. It lists nine orientations as follows:

    • enhance respect for human rights under the Thai Constitution (1997);
    • integrate human rights in the national political, economic and social development;
    • take measures to promote people's understanding concerning human rights and duties, responsibilities and ethics;
    • promote the universality, indivisibility and interdependence of human rights;
    • support the implementation of human rights treaties to which Thailand is a party;
    • foster cooperation at all levels to promote and protect human rights;
    • improve laws and regulations to promote and protect human rights;
    • support NGOs and peoples organizations at all levels;
    • improve government organs, especially the bureaucracy, to use power democratically.

The Thai plan targets for action many marginalized sectors, e.g. women, children, those with disability, those with HIV/AIDS, stateless persons and prisoners. It even covers some groups not traditionally found in general human rights discourse at the international level, e.g. consumers. However, it shies away from identifying certain groups for protection, e.g. indigenous communities and refugees.

Currently, there are various challenges facing the Thai Plan. Is it being well implemented ? The Plan was adopted by the previous government, and there is now a new government. A key test is to ensure that the plan is seen as non-partisan and that it pertains to all governments. Second, while there have been some reforms pursuant to the Plan, e.g. reform of the Anti-Communist law, it is not altogether clear how the totality of the Plan is being implemented. The Plan is supposed to be monitored by an inter-sectoral group, but this still needs to be activated. Third, with the recent establishment of the National Human Rights Commission, a question has arisen concerning to what extent this Commission is bound to follow the Plan. The Commission is working on its own strategic plan, and while the national human rights plan will be borne in mind, the Commission is likely to follow an independent line. Fourth, many government ministries are still not well briefed about the national plan, thus indicating the need for more dissemination of the plan, related dialogues and sustainable follow-up activities based on more capacity-building and reforms.

Second, the example of the Philippines. The Philippine Human Rights Plan was for the period 1996-2000, and it has now been extended to 2002. It is a detailed plan with many target groups such as women, children, indigenous communities, Muslims, the urban poor and rural workers. The targets set by the Plan have helped to promote law and policy reforms. However, the key test is not so much in the passage of new laws, but in their effective implementation. The implementation process has been assisted by inter-agency 'sectoral working groups'(SWG) consisting of both government personnel and NGOs, and the whole process is closely linked with the Philippine Human Rights Commission. The 1999-2000 report of this Commission notes as follows:

"Under the legislative agenda, nine laws covering 30 measures for children, women, prisoners/detainees, informal labor workers, urban poor and indigenous peoples, were passed. 77% of the proposed measures are ongoing and are covered by 116 Senate and House Bills/Resolution pending in Congress. However, 28 new legislative measures filed in Congress were added to the original plan. However, there are still 20% of the original measures, which have not been translated into actual bills.

Under the administrative and programme agenda, 43 measures covering children, youth, women, elderly, urban poor, prisoners/detainees and migrant workers, have been completed, while 175 others are still being worked out.

At the regional level, ordinances and resolutions on human rights passed by the local government units at various levels are now being implemented and are being monitored by the regional SWG. Primarily, the measures provide policy, local funding, logistics and other support for the implementation of human rights programs, projects and activities for the local areas' priority sectors, such as the creation of women and children's desks in police stations, establishment of Barangay (village/district level) Human Rights Action Centers, implementation of the Philippine Human Rights Plan, creation of Human Rights Councils at different levels, expansion of prison facilities and construction of separate cells for women and children; creation of Human Rights/Desks, nutrition and health care programs for elderly, ...training...."

Given the difficult current political situation facing the country, the implementation of the Plan is faced with many obstacles - not because of the Plan itself but because of the environment around the Plan. Interestingly, the implementation of the Plan is now being evaluated, and the United Nations Development Programme is helping to support this. The lessons learned from such evaluation need to be used well to propel more sustainability of actions at the national and local levels.

These experiences attest to the fact that the formulation of national human rights plans needs to bear in mind a variety of potential challenges in the implementation process, and those stakeholders with the power to help implement them need to coordinate well to build the capacity for effective actions.

Directions

The above analysis has endeavored to provide a brief overview of national human rights plans in the Asia-Pacific region - in a realistic manner. There is a need to promote such plans precisely because they provide focus and targets for actions. However, the quality of their implementation needs to be ensured. The credibility of such plans is based upon the basics of any plan development - integrated planning, implementation, evaluation and follow-up, with adequate resources, responsive to the needs of the target groups in a feasible time frame.

It is worth harking back to the Asia-Pacific intersessional workshop on national human rights plans where the participants shared their wisdom on such plans and identified possible elements inherent in the evolution of such plans. They include the following:

  1. Purposes of national human rights plans. These should cover the need to promote the universality, interdependence and indivisibility of human rights, encourage ratification of international human rights instruments and related reporting, strengthen national capacity for the promotion and protection of human rights, including national human rights mechanisms, adopt effective steps to help vulnerable groups, and enhance cooperation and education on human rights, with gender sensitivity.
  2. Possible steps in formulating national plans. These should entail eight steps as follows:
    • the establishment of a national coordination committee for the development of the national human rights plan;
    • the conducting of a baseline study on the promotion and protection of human rights in the country to facilitate the formulation of the plan;
    • the inclusion of key components such as the international framework, international cooperation, the national legal and institutional framework, national human rights mechanisms, human rights education, vulnerable groups, and the indivisibility of human rights in the national plan;
    • the development of priorities and strategies such as partnership-building, awareness campaigns, legislative reform, national capacity building to promote and protect human rights, and benchmarks to measure progress;
    • the drafting of the national plan with clear objectives, time frame and implementation strategies;
    • the implementation of the national plan, including resources mobilization and dissemination of the plan;
    • the monitoring and evaluation of the national plan;
    • the review and revision of the national plan targeted to further improvements.

The final challenge is to bear in mind consistently that the national human rights plan is merely a means to an end, and not an end in itself; it needs to be process-oriented and outcome-oriented. In this perspective, the plan has to embody 'national', as contradistinguised from 'governmental', aspirations. Hence, the call for a genuine and persistent commitment to be non-partisan, participatory, accessible, transparent and sustainable.

Mr, Vitit Muntarbhorn is a Professor at the Faculty of Law, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok. He was formerly UN Special Rapporteur on the Sale of Children.

For further information, please send communication to this address: Faculty of Law, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand, phone (662) 215-8091 to 94; fax (662) 215-3604, 215-2018.

Note) 1. This is an excerpt of the Introductory Remarks on the same topic read at the Tenth Workshop on Regional Cooperation for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in the Asia-Pacific Region (Beirut, Lebanon, 4 - 6 March 2002).


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