Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80
TUESDAY 7 MAY 2002
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 Brazilhuman
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
allI 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
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 conciliationfor example, if it
is an examination of treating indigenous peoples in a country
or other minoritiesand 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 bodyideally 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 powersa power of investigation
and inquiry, a power to look at how government reports to international
bodiesto follow up on investigations of that kind. I would
have to saytrying to think of precise roles of conciliationI
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.
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
(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 inquiriesthe 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 councilwe
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 areaswomen'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 addresstrafficking, 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
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
(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 parliamentand 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 officialsthat 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 accountabilityreporting 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
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 commissionsin 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
numberI have forgotten how manyof 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.
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
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
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.