As protection of human rights seems to be sliding everywhere, the international human-rights system has responded by focusing on national implementation, to ensure that states’ international commitments are translated into meaningful changes felt by people on the ground. While often overlooked, parliaments can provide a critical link between global agreements and domestic progress on human-rights issues.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres recognizes that “Parliaments are uniquely positioned to contribute to closing the implementation gap, to prevent violations of human rights and to ensure better protection, especially of vulnerable groups, by ensuring the implementation of human rights recommendations.” However, a recent survey by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Inter-Parliamentary Union of parliaments worldwide found that only a few them engage with UN human-rights mechanisms.
Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, also acknowledges the important role of parliaments in protecting human rights, defending and engaging with civil society organizations and fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goals.
Diplomats in New York and Geneva can contribute to increasing parliamentary engagement with human rights through backing action by the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council, building on work done by the latter to strengthen parliamentary engagement with the Universal Periodic Review, which examines the human-rights records of all 193 members of the UN.
The UPR, as it is called, continues to receive high-level engagement from UN member states undergoing their third cycle of reviews, with states receiving an average of 200 recommendations from 90 other states, although the UN is now emphasizing the implementation and national follow-up on recommendations. More than half of the recommendations require parliamentary action. Yet few parliamentarians are aware of the recommendations that their governments have accepted, let alone the conclusions and recommendations of UN treaty bodies and special procedures.
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Inter-Parliamentary Union have carried out training and awareness-raising activities around the world to increase parliamentary engagement with UN human-rights mechanisms like the Universal Periodic Review. However, the high commissioner’s office has found that parliaments could better protect human rights if they establish internal human-rights committees that monitor and oversee how human rights are carried out.
Georgia has an example of a world-class parliamentary human-rights committee, which remains the exception rather than the norm. Its committee works on implementing the Universal Periodic Review and treaty body recommendations as well as European Court of Human Rights judgments. It holds hearings to discuss and act on national reports to UN human-rights bodies, reports by the independent national human-rights institution and even so-called “shadow reports” by civil society organizations. It also ensures that legislation aligns with the country’s human-rights obligations.
For example, it most recently drafted a Code on the Rights of the Child, which Unesco praised as a “ground-breaking achievement and an important landmark for every child in Georgia.”
Georgia’s human-rights committee is a model because of the strong domestic political will in the parliament in adopting a series of reforms over the last four years. But the committee had little accessible guidance on what reforms it should enact. Other parliaments have expressed interest in receiving more guidance as well, according to the OHCHR survey.
In response to that demand, the OHCHR has synthesized a set of Draft Principles on Parliaments and Human Rights, based on available research and OHCHR practice, which recommend the establishment of parliamentary human-rights committees and setting out guidelines on their functions and composition. The onus now lies with the international community, including the UN General Assembly, the Human Rights Council and the Inter-Parliamentary Union, to consider the draft principles and to decide whether to endorse them.
Such an endorsement would send a strong political signal to parliaments that their engagement with UN human-rights mechanisms is needed. It would also fill a longstanding gap in the international framework of standard-setting documents, such as the Paris Principles on National Human Rights Institutions and the Bangalore Principles of Judicial Conduct. Ultimately, it would provide valuable guidance to parliaments that want to do more to protect human rights.
Members of the General Assembly had a firsthand opportunity to learn about this topic at a side event in October 2019. As a next step, the General Assembly may wish to consider forming a cross-regional group of friends on parliamentary engagement with human rights to continue awareness-raising and to discuss how to take action in Third Committee sessions, coordinating with Human Rights Council members working on parliamentary engagement.
In our age of backlash, increasing parliamentary engagement with human rights is an important way to legitimize them by encouraging politicians to take ownership of their country’s international human-rights commitments. It is also a crucial way to improve the national implementation of human-rights obligations. Many parliaments have expressed their interest in receiving human-rights training and guidance. The UN should act to increase parliaments’ engagement with human rights.
Brian Chang is the project researcher for the Parliaments, Rule of Law and Human Rights Research Project at the University of Oxford, where he has been researching how to strengthen parliamentary protection of the rule of law and human rights since 2015. Brian has also worked with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy to strengthen parliamentary protection of human rights in numerous countries, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Macedonia, Morocco, Serbia, Ukraine, Uganda and Tunisia. He has a B.A. in jurisprudence from The Queen’s College, Oxford, as well as an LL.M. (summa cum laude) from The George Washington University, where he was the recipient of a Thomas Buergenthal scholarship.
Murray Hunt is the director of the Bingham Center for the Rule of Law in London, and Britain’s alternate member of the Council of Europe’s Commission for Democracy Through Law (the Venice Commission). He is also the principal investigator of the project on Parliaments, the Rule of Law and Human Rights. Hunt studied law at Oxford and Harvard and was a barrister for 12 years.