Joint Committee On Human Rights Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 72 - 79)




  72. Good morning, High Commissioner. Thank you very much for giving up some of your precious time to appear before the Joint Committee on Human Rights today. You will know from meetings we have had that the Committee is now in its second year, and we are in the throes of our major inquiry into the case for a Human Rights Commission in the United Kingdom. It is a great pleasure for us to welcome you here today. I would like to start by asking you, what would you say to the suggestion, does a mature democracy like the United Kingdom, with a good human rights record, really need a Human Rights Commission; and, if it does, what difference would it make?

  (Mrs Robinson) First of all, it is an honour and a pleasure to address the Joint Committee on Human Rights of the Parliament. I would like to thank you, Chairman and Members, for the invitation. I was reflecting, coming here, on precisely the question you have posed. I was thinking of my own background. I have been educated at law school in Dublin; called to the Bar of the King's Inns; called to Middle Temple here in London; and the height of addressing human rights issues was perhaps to bring cases to the then Commission and the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The focus was very much on individual cases of human rights being taken before a court and the importance of that sometimes purely for the individual cases, sometimes because a case had wide ramifications. Since taking up this post I have become convinced that we can do a great deal more even in countries that have a strong system of justice and are serious about protecting human rights. I think we can in fact deepen the whole approach. I have become convinced that the establishment of independent, autonomous national institutions, the outreach of human rights, can be a very good way of reinforcing the protection of human rights; bringing home to people in a very different way that human rights do matter in small places, and they will have a kind of access that they would not wish to have, or certainly have, in a court of law. I think I can summarise where I see the advantages of an independent national human rights institution. First of all, they support and they supplement basic institutions of democracy, because they are working with governments; they report to parliament; they are working with civil society; they are keeping the focus on human rights in that linking and linking the international human rights system with national protections. As such, they build bridges between government and civil society. It would not be appropriate to have a national human rights commission that did not have a good relationship with networks of civil society to reinforce and learn from what they are doing and what the human rights commission might do. I think their role is very substantially educational. They educate by doing, and people are very impressed by that in different countries. They are impressed by inquiries; they are impressed by Poverty Speak Out in South Africa that brought home to rural communities throughout South Africa that actually people were interested and were coming to listen to them on issues of poverty as a human rights issue. In rural Australia the position of Aboriginal children—a new way of seeing that human rights really do matter in that sense. I think it is a good way of ensuring that governments uphold the commitments they make in ratifying any core instruments to covenants and for human rights conventions. In their reporting—that when the Committee in Geneva, or in the case of CEDAW in New York, makes recommendations that these are followed through in a way that is expert and informed. For all these reasons—if you have a true independent human rights commission with the calibre of people it should have, with their commitment, either all full-time or at least three key members definitely full-time, and power to investigate, power to call evidence, reporting to parliament, all these attributes—then I genuinely think they are a fleshing out of the human rights protective framework and educational framework. It is a strength to any country—even one that already has a mature system of support for human rights.

Baroness Perry of Southwark

  73. High Commissioner, I was very taken with a phrase you used on the radio this morning when you were being interviewed by the BBC; you used the phrase "the integrity of human rights'', and you linked it with the role of law. Could I just press you a little on how you would describe a society in which there was an "integrity of human rights"?
  (Mrs Robinson) First of all, I would say I think I emphasised integrity in a particular context, but I will come to your question. When I took up this post I was quite taken aback by the criticisms that I heard that human rights at the international level is completely politicised and selective; the Western finger point and without integrity. I spent a lot of time reinforcing that integrity, which means having a very clear sense of what the human rights agenda is at the international level, which is to be strong in the protection and promotion of civil and political rights; to be strong in the protection and promotion of economic, social and cultural rights; and, because it is in my mandate, to seek consensus on the right to development and advance that right. To be non-selective; to address problems of the countries large and small; and to ensure that the approach is not simple finger pointing; that it is constructive; that it address violations but offers support in addressing them. When it comes to the integrity of human rights at the national level, I think I would place more emphasis on: is it really accessible; is there an embedding of culture of human rights; does it matter in inner-city and rural areas; is there a sense that there is a body that can be looked to and gets around and reaches out in the way we do not expect, and should not expect, courts to do. Courts are there to apply individual justice and are accessible in that sense. I am talking about the more proactive engagement as a deepening of democracy; but the integrity of it is that it would not be politicised. I think we spend a lot of time with human rights NGOs trying to encourage them not to be political in their approach to human rights, but to advance the human rights issues. I think at a national level that is part of the integrity of the human rights message.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

  74. I wonder, High Commissioner, if I could ask you about the Paris Principles. If one is trying to design a national human rights commission, ought the government, and ourselves for that matter, regard the Paris Principles as a minimum or a maximum? Are there any parts of that which are particularly important, and are there any significant gaps we need to think about?
  (Mrs Robinson) I would very much regard them as a minimum, as a kind of floor. I say this around the world when I am urging adherence to the Paris Principles. This is not the height of the attainment; this is the minimum in order to have independence, plurality of membership, resources, adequate powers, reporting to parliament and the accountability of the Commission itself. It is true, that of the more than 40 human rights commissions that our office advises, a significant number would not fully adhere to the Paris Principles. We are still striving and they are a good benchmark. I would very much say that in mature democracies they are a floor that can be built on to really ensure that the human rights commission carries out a role that links with the role of Parliament, particularly with its own human rights protection through its committee system, and with the civil society and with the departments of government. It should be able to have a good monitoring of what government is doing in the area of human rights, and looking for reports to it and be able to raise issues and link those with the international human rights standards. Another factor from this perspective of our office in its work is that we seek to share experiences between human rights commissions and bring them together a lot. There is an interesting international dimension of the meetings of human rights commissions either regionally, as they will do, I think, in November, hosted by the two Irish commissions in Belfast and Dublin. Each year the coordinating council of national institutions comes, during the Commission on Human Rights, and has a discussion and looks at various things, then human rights commissions address the Commission on Human Rights. This itself is an important link with the international standards in a very real way. I would have thought that a human rights commission, in the context of having several layers of external human rights protections, such as the European Convention, can add on more functions and more powers than the Paris Principles.

  75. One of the very odd omissions, compared with, say, the British equality commissions, is that there is nothing in the Paris Principles about access to justice and helping people to bring cases, or acting as a friend of the court, or bringing proceedings in its own right. Are those the kind of functions you would conceive of as being important extras, or not?
  (Mrs Robinson) They could be. I think that the approach has been more to complement access to justice in the courts; but, I agree with you, that access could be improved upon. I am interested in the Indian Human Rights Commission and its relationship with the Supreme Court, and the fact that there can be a request for investigations, or the Commission can draw the attention of the court. It is a developing relationship, and I think that is going beyond the Paris Principles in an Indian context, in a way that is entirely appropriate. I would like to think more about the question of furthering access to justice as being potentially, yes, the role of a proactive human rights commission. It is certainly a way of strengthening the role of the courts.

  76. One other question about the United Kingdom government's failure so far to sign up to the optional protocols to the various international human rights treaties—the Covenants and the Conventions against torture, race discrimination, sex discrimination and the rights of the child—do you have a view about that? How important would it be for the United Kingdom to do it? How detrimental is it that the United Kingdom government has not? They have got a review underway at the moment so it is a rather topical question to be thinking about.
  (Mrs Robinson) Perhaps I could answer in two ways. First of all, the fact that the United Kingdom has not signed up to various optional protocols is a further reason for strengthening at national level the outreach of human rights protection and increasing access through not just relying on the courts but having other ways of inquiry, investigation, consulting etc. I would encourage obviously the ratification of the optional protocols that you have mentioned. I am also aware that at the UN level we have to put more work into making the system work better when we have the right of petition and the individual submissions. We have been putting a lot of focus on that in recent months. We certainly would not wish to cope with a large volume of individual cases, because we still have a lot to do. Also, cases taken at that level have a huge educational role internationally and are very important. Therefore, I think it would be very welcome and strengthen the system itself if the United Kingdom does ratify the optional protocols. These things are followed very closely at the international level. They have a peer pressure of the right sort when they are ratified.

Vera Baird

  77. Perhaps an unrelated topic, High Commissioner, but certainly relevant to what you first said about integrity and the importance you gave to follow through from individual governments to the various reports you quoted, to the Committee of CEDAW do you have any comment about our own government's record of responding or complying with the recommendations of the UN Committee?
  (Mrs Robinson) It is a focus I am increasingly encouraging, both in the work of our own office and the Treaty bodies themselves in countries that are to be commended for having ratified and reported—because there can also be a slippage and delay in reporting. So the first point is that a country takes it reporting obligation seriously. The second point is that it takes its implementing seriously. When I pay a working visit to a country I bring with me the reports and the record of the country in its reporting obligations. I would be very honest and say, I did not bring the record here with me because we were having a different discussion, so I cannot give you a detailed technical account that I very often do when I am visiting in a different context. It is generally with the relevant ministers that I take up the fact that the committee has recommended and it has not been followed up. It is good that I can do it as High Commissioner on a visit to a country; but how much more important it is to have the system of structured follow-up on the recommendations under the two covenants and four cornerstones—Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention against Torture, the Convention on Racial Discrimination, and CEDAW the Convention against the Discrimination of Women. You have a very real internal sense of follow-through on recommendations.

  78. A less than perfect government record would be extra evidence of the need for the kind of commission we are intending?
  (Mrs Robinson) In fairness, few governments have a perfect record. There is tension in debate and so there should be. There is not always agreement on recommendations of the Committees either. Sometimes a good human rights institution might also say, "The committee put it this way, but actually we know on the ground that the real problem is slightly different''; that can also happen.

  Chairman: High Commissioner, it may be, further to that question from Vera Baird if it strikes you when you get back that there are other things you want to say, we would be very pleased if you felt it appropriate to write to the Committee, and we can append that as evidence to our report.

Mr McNamara

  79. High Commissioner, in relation to your reply to Lord Lester, the fact that we are in fact bound by the European Convention on Human Rights on issues like torture and so on, people have right of petition from the domestic court and the Court of Strasbourg, and the British Government has an unenviable record on human rights in Strasbourg on various aspects. Could I ask you specifically: how does the Commission, as established, ensure or seek to ensure that government pay attention to protocols when they have not signed? What is the experience of other countries in trying to deal with these matters? The United Kingdom is not alone in not having signed it, but other countries do have commissions.
  (Mrs Robinson) It is a considerable part of the workload and experience of the existing human rights commissions to address the degree to which their government has, first of all, ratified the core instruments and, secondly, is fulfilling its reporting obligations and, thirdly, is considering signing up to the optional protocols. It is, therefore, a very useful way of integrating the international standards with what happens at country level. To me, that is a vital dimension. It is good having abstract standards and, in a way this is all the more important I think, that the UN system, as you rightly said, in countries like the United Kingdom, have the European Convention as a closer framework and a very significant framework on human rights; but the UN framework also is important, and its universality is important—back to, again, the integrity. It is a universal system and, therefore, it is important that it be fully implemented—the recommendations. I would say that in relation to developed countries, sometimes it is in the area of economic, social and cultural rights—the reports of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights—that provide more problems of implementation. To have a national human rights institution being able to focus on that would be, I believe, very significant. You have asked me for specific examples. It is such a part of the workload. I remember discussing it recently with the chairman of the Ugandan Human Rights Commission. They have now established three sub-offices in Uganda to be more accessible to people. She was saying that part of what they are trying to do is to make sure that the reports of the government, first of all, are circulated (because there is not always a wide knowledge that the government has reported); and in its report has committed to or acknowledged it has to do more in a certain area. Sometimes it can be a very private discussion between a government and the Treaty body in Geneva. Increasingly, happily, NGOs are presenting themselves and are present in Geneva and sometimes produce alternative reports if they have not been linked to the preparation of the government report. The system is strengthening slowly at the international level; but of far more importance is how it impacts down back into the system when there has been a report and the committee have commented on it and made recommendations for implementation. Where I discussed it recently was with the new Human Rights Commission in Bangkok. A Human Rights Commission has just been established by the Government of Thailand. It looks to be a good embryonic—It is early days. One of the first things they did was go to the border where there were problems of refugees, of migrants, and they were pinning their government to their international obligation, and asking us for more help in training on the treating body reporting. We have had a very early experience of a Human Rights Commission dealing with a particular problem and realising they had tools but they needed to be familiar with them and trained.

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