Joint Committee On Human Rights Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 99)



  80. You have mentioned the incorporation of NGOs, and consultation of the NGOs in preparation of the government's report. Does it help for NGOs to be wrapped up in government reports in that way; or is it better for them to give their own critiques of the government reports?
  (Mrs Robinson) It is difficult to give a general answer. The approach has been to say that it is encouraging when a report is made, for example, under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and is prepared in a full and open consultation between government and the NGOs, that it will be a truer report. That does not stop the NGOs, when the report is being considered, from saying, "We only work on this report. We do not agree with what the government put in''. In other words, there is a reserve situation. There is the opposite possibility, and I saw it in a very interesting and dramatic way. Brazil was very much in delay in reporting under the international Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. A very broad range of civil society in Brazil—human rights, women's networks, church, trade unions, Black Brazilian groups got together and did an alternative report in default of a government report. When they came to Geneva they did not have a formal session with the Committee; the Committee wanted to encourage indirectly, so they met them at lunchtime. Very shortly after that I was making an official visit to Brazil carrying with me the alternative report and got a very early commitment from the government that they were completing rapidly a comprehensive government report. They did, and it has since been considered by the Committee and you have a very informed civil society which was there. The reason I think that is an important factor to consider is that I have heard NGOs worried as to whether in some countries, particularly developing countries with scarce enough resources, an official international human rights commission will absorb too much energy and support, including from our office, at the expense of the role of NGOs. I have always found it extremely important to highlight the role and importance of NGOs, both human rights and developmental NGOs, because they are now working closer and closer on human rights issues, particularly economic and social issues; and that we place great emphasis on a national human rights commission being supportive of and facilitating the role of these NGOs in their activity, and working with respect for each other's different viewpoints in the context of the government's role in reporting to the treaty bodies. You asked me, should NGOs be involved at all—I think there can be quite a complexity of involvement. I support the idea of working with a government on a report, because it is probably a truer reflection for the committee in Geneva; but I also recognise that there is a freedom to go further and to make other points even if there has been an involvement in preparing the report; that NGOs do not feel bound to be silent when they come to give their own evidence and their own story in Geneva.

Vera Baird

  81. Could I ask your view, High Commissioner, about the role that national human rights commissions can play as mediating bodies, deploying alternative dispute resolution procedures to settle problems between citizens and public authorities? Can it be an appropriate and effective role?
  (Mrs Robinson) We have discussed this in our office and I know that Brian Burdekin, my Special Adviser, sees a potential for human rights commissions to play a role; in particular if they are carrying out an inquiry or investigation. It may not be a traditional role of conciliation—for example, if it is an examination of treating indigenous peoples in a country or other minorities—and the result is quite critical. The Commission can play a further role in: how do we address this problem? It is not just an investigative body—ideally it reports to the parliament. You can have a discussion on what can be the follow-up, and what is the next step. This, I think, is the proactive potential of national human rights commissions. They can use their different powers—a power of investigation and inquiry, a power to look at how government reports to international bodies—to follow up on investigations of that kind. I would have to say—trying to think of precise roles of conciliation—I think we are still at an early stage. I think it is a potential area where commissions can play a role. The South African Human Rights Commission during the last year called upon various departments to review what they have been doing in relation to education, health, HIV Aids etc. You could see a possibility of a conciliation role developing out of that. We do try to look at good practices. We have been encouraging human rights commissions at the moment to put a focus on access of people with disabilities, physical or intellectual disabilities. First of all, an awareness that they too are part of the human rights system and should be aware of and avail themselves of the human rights standards and mechanisms and they should be more accessible to them. Also in that area you can see potential for an advisory role of further steps needing to be taken, which is not quite conciliation either. There is a proactive follow-up role which could include conciliation.

Baroness Whitaker

  82. We should particularly value your contribution to our work on some practical issues of the limitation of recommendation. You mentioned in answer to Lady Perry that the human rights commission was a body that could get around to listen to people in a way that the courts could not. I wonder if you could give us some examples where a commission in a comparable country to the UK has made a practical difference; and which international human rights commission would provide the best models for us to look at?
  (Mrs Robinson) I am not sure that I can give you as comprehensive an answer, but we can supplement my answer. I am aware, for example, in relation to the National Human Rights Commission in Australia of the inquiries that it has carried out in the area, for example, of homeless and abused children. That had a big impact and led to the need for changes in the Australian safeguards. I am aware of the conclusions of the Poverty Speak Out I mentioned with the South African Human Rights Commission; that this had implications for a whole range of ministries in South Africa, and now they are following up to see what they have done. This is the point about sustaining the inquiry. I am aware of an Australian example which is perhaps a model worth looking at, because of its power to carry out such inquiries—the impact of the inquiry into the removal of Aboriginal children from their families; a very specific issue which lends itself to this kind of inquiry. I have discussed with the Indian Human Rights Commission their huge caseload, first of all. They deal with some 70,000-80,000 cases in a year. More recently, when the Chair and some members of the Commission were in Geneva for this coordinating council—we discussed Gujarat. The Chair of the Commission was the first independent investigator to go there. It is a very worrying problem, and it is good that there is a human rights commission that can be immediately proactive and take a responsibility. I am sure there are many other examples we could provide you with. We have a compilation of the kind of investigations and practices that human rights commissions have carried out, and my Special Advisor, Brian Burdekin, could follow up and give you some material.

  83. That would be very helpful. I know you have done some pioneering work in helping, internationally, human rights commissions to help each other. Could you set out a little bit what you do here?
  (Mrs Robinson) I can give you a compelling example which really struck me recently; it was in a particular context. I was in Afghanistan to mark International Women's Day on 8 March, but also because on 9 March we had a workshop which our office was supporting to bring together Afghan judges, lawyers, human rights experts, representatives of women's group etc, and we were focussing on four areas—women's rights, human rights, education, what we call transitional justice and (this is the example) the fact that under the Bonn Agreement Afghanistan is to establish a human rights commission. We decided, rather than take experts from Geneva, we would actually look to expertise in the region. We brought the Chair of the Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission, Justice Mustafa, and a member of the Malaysia Human Rights Commission, Miss Annan. Because they were both Muslim, both came from commissions that had been set up under considerable difficulty, they talked about the difficulties of establishing; and they were very good advocates because you could see that suddenly this was very meaningful to the Afghan judges, lawyers, human rights activists, journalists and so on; they saw the point; they saw that this could be exactly what they would want or need. I think that increasingly we are trying to do these linkages. Another example of a slightly different sort is, when I was in discussion with the newly formed Human Rights Commission in Thailand, they were talking about one of the areas that they would like to address—trafficking, the trafficking in women and children. I already knew that the Indian Human Rights Commission was linking with Nepal in combining on trafficking so was able to link the Thai Human Rights Commission, and they are going to work together and work in a more effective way on human rights dimensions; but also be very effective in addressing the issues with their governments. If anything, I think we are probably at an early stage of potential for this kind of linkage. In Denmark a while ago, on behalf of the national human rights institution, I launched a website, the Danish Centre, and our office had supported it. I think the more there is that website connection the more national institutions will be able to see that they can draw from or share experience and, in fact, work better because they have gained from what somebody else has been doing. Certainly we would now try to draw on expertise from within the region to support a new human rights commission coming on stream as being very compelling and very helpful in bringing home that this is a very practical hands-on, proactive way of bringing human rights to small places and making it much more accessible and meaningful.

Mr McNamara

  84. High Commissioner, you spent a lot of time in Dublin and Belfast looking at the creation of a human rights commission there. Are there any lessons which the commission for Great Britain could learn from your experiences in Dublin and Belfast?
  (Mrs Robinson) I think there are quite interesting lessons. First of all, that it took quite a long time and was difficult in both places, which was interesting because it was, after all, a requirement under the Good Friday Agreement; but, nonetheless, it was not at all easy. Secondly, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission does not have the full powers that I wish it to see, but there was a provision for a review after two years. I have encouraged that this review would actually look at what are, I believe, stronger powers in the Dublin Commission on Human Rights; but it was very slow to get off the ground and to exercise those powers and, if anything, has brought home to me the fact that engaging in the establishment of a human rights commission is quite an undertaking, particularly when I am working in support of this in a developing country, it is necessary to be patient and understanding. I have followed the situation in both Dublin and Belfast in a supportive way, supportive of the objectives. I hope there will be a review of the Northern Ireland Commission. The Commission itself in its report has called for strengthening some of its powers. I would support those recommendations. I wrote to Prime Minister Blair some time ago in support of the observations and conclusions of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission in its report. The powers of the Dublin Human Rights Commission are quite significant, but we have not seen the full exercise of them yet. I would like to see more focus on that.

  85. A human rights commission in the North is established under the Good Friday Agreement which was very conscious of community rights and community interests and seeking to balance these. The proposed Bill was subject to a great deal of controversy. It seems to be, to a certain extent, unravelling basic provisions within the Good Friday Agreement and being more attentive perhaps to individual rights than to community rights. How would you, as a general principle, see the balancing of community rights as against individual rights within a human rights context?
  (Mrs Robinson) It is difficult to give a general answer. As I say, in the context of the Northern Ireland Commission I hope that there will be what I call a forward-looking review; that is what was envisaged when the Commission was established. We will review it positively. That is what I would hope to see. If you take, for example, the powers of the Dublin Commission, it can initiate inquiries into any relevant matters, and it can look broadly; but it also has a power to apply to the high court or the supreme court for leave to appear before them as amicus curiae in proceedings that involve human rights of any person. I would not say it is either/or. I would say these are two good areas that can be used in the future, as two good functions of the human rights commission. Certainly the capacity to be proactive and engage in inquiries and call for evidence, to be able to publish the results and to be able to report to parliament—and they are an important part of the capacity to engage in a broader sense and have more focus on community rights and community issues.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

  86. On Belfast and Dublin, just to follow up what has been said, would it not be desirable if north and south of the border both Commissions were adopting common standards of the European Convention on human rights into their domestic law? I know it has not happened in the Republic yet but has in the north. Would it not be very important that those two Commissions were very closely concerned, as are the courts, in common standards across the border?
  (Mrs Robinson) Yes, it seems to me that would be a very good basis particularly if, as is envisaged, the two commissions also worked closer together in future, which is part of the protocols.


  87. In this context, given that it is governments that generally do establish human rights commissions, what factors would you say there are which underpin their success, or which undermine them? Is it an openness; is it a risk of cultural defensiveness? Is it accountability? Is it finance; or is it all of those?
  (Mrs Robinson) What I would say is particularly important is the calibre of the human rights members of the human rights commission, that they have integrity, moral courage, confidence, public credibility and independence from executive influence, and that they have a ranking and salary comparable to senior and judicial officials—that is also important; that the commission itself has resources to carry out its functions because if it does not it will lose credibility. I have had to come in supportively in a number of countries on the need to resource the human rights commission; and that it has the kind of powers and functions I have talked about, and accountability—reporting to parliament. That is important because it is important that there be a visibility to exercise those powers which reinforce what the Commission is doing and allows criticism. You have a lot of powers but if you are not exercising them in important areas, it is a two-way process. We did have something of a shock at a European level when the relatively newly formed Danish government indicated that it was going to end the role of the Danish Centre which acts as a human rights commission. There was a very healthy reaction in Denmark, widely in Europe, and I also wrote to the Prime Minister. As a result the principles were safeguarded and there is a recognition of the importance of maintaining independence, credibility, resources and reporting in the carrying out of functions. At the same time, it was quite a shock that an institution which seemed to be not only important in a Danish context but was looked to as quite a model would come under some threat. I think that brought home to me that it is a continuing debate. As so often in human rights, it is a case of eternal vigilance because nothing is entirely secure.

Baroness Prashar

  88. I just wanted to ask whether you think integrated human rights and equality commissions work better than where the two functions are separated?
  (Mrs Robinson) That is a difficult question to give a generalised answer to, particularly in developing countries. I try to encourage them not to have several different institutions, because institutions are expensive; and to sustain them and have a good calibre of people and good research is difficult. On the whole, I recommend that there be a human rights commission that integrates issues of racism, minorities, children and women's rights. Sometimes there may be a pre-existing that remains separate; and sometimes there can be an amalgam, as happened in Australia for example. In developed mature democracies there may be an added value in having different bodies. If that is the case it certainly would be important to have very good cooperation and very good avoidance of duplication. I am aware, for example, here in the United Kingdom of the importance of continuing to address issues of racism and discrimination, particularly where you have quite large minorities based. I think the question would be an interesting one as to how a human rights commission addressing a different way and using the role of the Convention for Elimination of Racism and Discrimination, but also in the broader context, could complement what the existing bodies are doing. You have a developed system here. I think it would be an interesting question to see whether a human rights commission could in a proactive way address some of those issues on the ground in a way that could be helpful.

  89. Are there any examples where you have seen it work better separately?
  (Mrs Robinson) Obviously in a number of countries there are separate commissions—in Nordic countries, in South Africa itself, and in India there is a developed commission for women. What I am saying is, if there is support and resourcing of the system there may be a value in having different bodies. What I recommend when maybe a developing country is seeking to establish an independent body is that it can be valuable to try to integrate in a broader human rights commission. Take, for example, the situation in Afghanistan, I think we would try to help the human rights commission have a particular focus on women, and we would encourage other kinds of support for women's issues, a commission for women etc; but that the human rights commission would in fact address the tough issues that need to be addressed.

Baroness Perry of Southwark

  90. As a Committee we have already visited Northern Ireland and we are planning to visit Scotland and Wales while their own commissions are being actively considered. What is your view if, for example, these regional commissions are established and there is still no commission for the people of England and Wales as a whole? Would you feel that would undermine the credibility of the Government's commitment to human rights?
  (Mrs Robinson) I think it is more a case of is there a conviction on the part of the Government/Parliament/civil society that there is an added value in a human rights commission. I would say that it is supportive of that argument if Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and in a near jurisdiction in Dublin this is seen to be reinforcing. Therefore, the fact that there is a recognition and support and implementing of quite a commitment of personnel and resources to this in various parts of the United Kingdom, first of all, and in a neighbouring very close jurisdiction I think perhaps reinforces the case. I look at it from the wider perspective that it was one of the commitments of the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights and the development of human rights institutions and the development of plans of action for human rights which are another way of deepening and embedding a culture of human rights having a broad based participatory plan of action that can also follow up on having independent human rights institutions that there is a good base to bring forward a very participatory plan of action for human rights. I would prefer to adopt an encouraging rather than a judgmental approach as to whether in the United Kingdom there would be an overarching human rights commission or one that works for this component that is not covered by other human rights commissions. Do not under-estimate, if it is established, the kind of human rights communities that naturally flow from linking with other human rights commissions in the region and internationally. I think that is an area that we will be developing more and more through website sharing of good practices, etc. If you do develop here, then I have no doubt it will be a good model also for application elsewhere.

  91. Could I just ask a supplementary on that. From the point of view of your own work would it be preferable to have one UK commission with which you could relate directly, which would have its own developed relationship with the regional commissions, or are you happy there should be four separate country commissions for the United Kingdom?
  (Mrs Robinson) First of all we would relate to either context as fully as possible and supportively. The experience internationally is if you take countries like India or Mexico, Mexico has a whole series of state human rights commissions. I met with them on a recent visit to Mexico and they vary, the state ones, in whether they are anything like independent, anything like approaching the Paris principles, they are quite uneven, whereas the national one does comply with the Paris principles. In that sense, it is going to have the overall federal national human rights commission which can link internally then to a significant number—I have forgotten how many—of heads, I think there were about 20 who came for this meeting as chairs of the state commissions on human rights. As I say, in India they have a significant number also of state commissions. Certainly it would be a good structure if there was an overarching commission that worked closely with them and was supportive of the regional commissions, if I can put it that way.

Norman Baker

  92. High Commissioner, could I ask you about the UN Convention on Rights of the Child which as you will know, I am sure, the UK Government ratified more than ten years or so ago. What steps would you envisage should be taken to ensure the fullest implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child here in the UK and are you aware of any shortcomings or work still to be done?
  (Mrs Robinson) As you say, the United Kingdom has ratified the Convention, happily it is the most ratified convention, 191 states have ratified. In fact, I leave this evening for New York for the Special Session on Children. There have been concerns in the reports of the Commission on the Rights of the Child. As I say, I thought to myself, I did not bring all the material with me to address you but we could provide you with that material. I think it will give you a base also for seeing how there can be follow up of the reports of the Committee. I would like to see the United Kingdom ratifying the two optional protocols on child soldiers and on sale of child pornography because I think again this reinforces the system. Both protocols came into effect, one in January and one in February of this year. They probably have more direct application in a number of developing countries but do not under-estimate how valuable it is to have countries supporting the building blocks that we are putting together. It reinforces the importance and certainly the optional protocol on child soldiers is vital in so many parts of Africa and places like Columbia.

  93. Thank you for that. I am sure any information you have the Committee would welcome. When we are setting up independent human rights bodies, how important do you think it is to have a specific remit for dealing with the Convention on the Rights of the Child in their job description, as it were?
  (Mrs Robinson) I would hope that they would have a remit to deal with the human rights instruments that a country has ratified and the United Kingdom has ratified all six of the core human rights instruments. That would be part of the given of the human rights commission if it was to be established. It is quite intensive work. The questions you are asking me bring home that although the United Kingdom has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the follow up of that is not well known and part of having a human rights commission is precisely that it will become better known because it will be disseminated, it will be discussed, it will be a matter that the human rights commission would report to Parliament on and will be calling for detailed information from various departments on what they are doing in follow up.

  94. In the absence of a commission perhaps a committee at least for the time being can try to help out. Can I ask you about the concept of reasonable chastisement, which I know you take a personal interest in. You will be aware, I am sure, that the UK Government has decided not to reform the law on that. Do you see that as a matter of debate and interpretation or is it your view that it is an absolute which needs to be implemented?
  (Mrs Robinson) I think it is still a debate but an increasingly serious one. I think we are increasingly looking at the impact on children of harsh corporal punishment, if I can put it that way, harsh treatment that negates what we are saying in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is a short cut which does not achieve the objective very often to taking the route of finding ways of persuading some of them, which can be quite tough ways of persuading children, that their conduct is not acceptable. I am the first, being a mother of three myself, to say that children actually need clear parameters, they need discipline, they need rigour in their lives and if they do not get it they can be very frustrated. I do think it is a debate we have to have for quite a while to fully understand and perhaps have more psychiatric support for what it does to slap a child hard. To me it does the same thing as slapping an adult hard but the adult is more able to respond. The human being is the same, in fact the child is more vulnerable and more undermined in dignity and worth, to put it in its simplest, but also very often frightened. We are talking generally about more serious forms of violence. Certainly at the international level it is a debate and there is not broad agreement yet but I think it is a good debate to pursue.

  95. Personally I agree with you. You say it does not work very often which does imply occasionally it does work. I suppose some parents would say that in order to create the parameters and to bring the children up properly there needs to be that as a last resort somewhere there in order to prevent the child from becoming too unruly. That might be an argument put forward by some parents.
  (Mrs Robinson) I am aware that argument is put forward. I am on the other side of the debate that it is good that there is an approach which recognises the need for discipline, the need for children to know that there are consequences of bad conduct, that they are consistent and that they will be applied. It takes a bit more time sometimes if you are not going to use physical force to drive home your point but it is an extremely important message for the child who will grow into an adult and for the future, I think.


  96. You may be aware, High Commissioner, at the moment there is an advertising campaign in the United Kingdom, a charity campaign. I saw one of its large posters last night, it was a picture of a little boy hitting another little boy in the school playground and the message was "unfortunately hitting your child does teach him a lesson''.
  (Mrs Robinson) Yes.

  97. I presume you are entirely supportive of campaigns like that which seek to persuade the public of the consequences of reasonable chastisement as it is called?
  (Mrs Robinson) Yes, very much so. I think it is a good way of bringing home the message.

  98. You will be aware more than me that human rights are constantly developing into new areas and the use of human rights as an environmental law is just one of them. To what extent do you think a national commission should seek to advance the boundaries of human rights law?
  (Mr Boyle) I am not an expert, I have to say, on environmental law. Looking forward in international terms to the conference in Johannesburg in August and September on the environment and sustainable development, it is worth noting that the human rights dimension of sustainable development within which environment is crucial is an increasingly important area. I think it is a very important area in public education. The High Commissioner has said one of the roles of the human rights commission will be education. I think great work is already done in the UK by NGOs on environment education. It is something a human rights commission could well be concerned with.
  (Mrs Robinson) We had a very useful seminar earlier this year which we organised jointly with UNEP, the UN Environmental Programme, Klaus Toepfer came along to the opening of it as well. We brought together 30 something experts in human rights and in the environment who respected each other enormously, having read each other, and a number of them knew each other. It was a very significant seminar which resulted in a series of recommendations of the experts. As yet those recommendations have not commended themselves to the Commission on Human Rights. We hoped they might form a basis for a strong resolution leading up to the Conference on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg but that actually did not happen. I would be very happy to have sent to you the conclusions because I think they do really show the strong linkages and the need to integrate more work on human rights and on the environment and the human rights aspects of the environment. It was really a pleasure to have such expertise. I know some of the human rights people, people like Justice Bhagwati has done a great deal of work when he was the Chief Justice of India. There were also very good environmental experts. I think the fruits of their deliberations will be valuable to you if you are considering this area.

  Chairman: That will be very helpful.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

  99. I wonder if I could follow up. Next week in Belfast there is going to be an international workshop on economic and social rights run by the British Council. I wonder whether you agree that the fact that so many economic and social rights are the responsibility of the executive legislative branches of Government and less so of judges who are not actively exercising an overt use of power makes it more important to have a human rights commission which can be dealing with economic and social rights as well as civil and political rights? Do you think that is a relevant factor one ought to take into account.
  (Mrs Robinson) Yes.

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