The idea of establishing national human rights institutions was first conceived in the aftermath of World War II. In 1946, the Economic and Social Council considered the issue of national institutions, two years before the Universal Declaration of Human (UDHR) Rights became the “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations”. Member states were invited to consider establishing information groups or local human rights committees.
In 1978, the Commission on Human Rights organised a seminar which resulted in draft guidelines for the structure and functioning of institutions. The Commission on Human Rights and the General Assembly subsequently endorsed the guidelines. The General Assembly invited States to take appropriate steps to establish these institutions, where they did not already exist, and requested the Secretary-General to submit a detailed report on NHRIs.
In 1991, the first international workshop on National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights took place in Paris. A key outcome was the Paris Principles relating to the status of national institutions. Since the Vienna World Conference in 1993, the Paris Principles are now broadly accepted as the test of an institution’s legitimacy and credibility. The importance of establishing and strengthening independent pluralistic NHRIs consistent with the Paris Principles has since been reaffirmed by the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council in various resolutions.
Adopted in 1993 by the United Nations General Assembly, the Paris Principles require NHRIs to:
- Protect human rights, including by receiving, investigating and resolving complaints, mediating conflicts and monitoring activities; and
- Promote human rights, through education, outreach, the media, publications, training and capacity building, as well as advising and assisting the Government.
The Paris Principles set out six main criteria that NHRIs require to meet:
- Mandate and competence: a broad mandate, based on universal human rights norms and standards;
- Autonomy from Government;
- Independence guaranteed by statute or Constitution;
- Adequate resources; and
- Adequate powers of investigation.
The Global Alliance for National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI) is the international association of national human rights institutions (NHRIs) from all parts of the globe.
Established in 1993, the GANHRI promotes and strengthens NHRIs to be in accordance with the Paris Principles, and provides leadership in the promotion and protection of human rights.
- Facilitates and supports NHRI engagement with the UN Human Rights Council and Treaty Bodies
- Encourages cooperation and information sharing among NHRIs, including through an annual meeting and biennial conference
- Undertakes accreditation of NHRIs in accordance with the Paris Principles
- Promotes the role of NHRIs within the United Nations and with States and other international agencies
- Offers capacity building in collaboration with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCR)
- Assists NHRIs under threat
- If requested, can assist government to establish NHRIs
Today there are well over 100 NHRIs operating around the world, 79 of which are accredited by the GANHRI in full compliance with the Paris Principles.
National human rights institutions are State bodies with a constitutional and/or legislative mandate to protect and promote human rights. They are part of the State apparatus and are funded by the State. However, they operate and function independently from government.
While their specific mandate may vary, the general role of NHRIs is to address discrimination in all its forms, as well as to promote the protection of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.
Core functions of NHRIs include complaint handling, human rights education and making recommendations on law reform.
Effective NHRIs are an important link between government and civil society, in so far as they help bridge the 'protection gap' between the rights of individuals and the responsibilities of the State.
Six models of NHRIs exist across all regions of the world today, namely: Human rights commissions, Human rights ombudsman institutions, Hybrid institutions, Consultative and advisory bodies, Institutes and centres and multiple institutions.