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NHRIs translate the international human rights norms and standards into lived realities at the domestic level

Opinion Piece: International Human Rights Day

10 DECEMBER 2015


Chairperson, South African Human Rights Commission and Chairperson of the International Coordinating Committee of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (ICC)

2016 will mark the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the two covenants namely, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which together with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights form the International Bill of Human Rights. These celebrations begin against the backdrop of violent conflict that has probably not been witnessed since the Second World War. The events in Mali, Tunisia, the Central African Republic, Lebanon, France to name but a few indicate the complexities of the challenges that currently confront world leaders. The resultant loss of life, displacement and destruction of property add to these complexities. These violent events have underscored the importance for all actors to work together to contribute to human rights promotion and protection, and while doing so ensure that the rule of law is upheld and that victims of human rights violations have access to redress.  It is in contexts such as these that the role that independent and credible national human rights institutions play becomes very critical.

National human rights institutions play an important “bridging” role between actors. They provide the link between what’s happening at the domestic and the international levels. They are the foot soldiers working to translate the international human rights norms and standards into lived realities at the domestic level. They are the important actors who together with the civil society push States to adhere to their international obligations and thus demand accountability for the respect for human rights. However, this role is only truly possible where national human rights institutions are independent and this requires that they operate in accordance with the Principles relating to the status of national institutions for the promotion and protection of human rights or simply the Paris Principles.

South Africa’s national human rights institution, the South African Human Rights Commission operates in full compliance with the Paris Principles and has in the twenty years of its existence contributed to shaping the human rights culture in South Africa. The Commission has also in the past three years as the Chair of the International Coordinating Committee of National Institutions for the promotion and protection of human rights (ICC) which is the global alliance of national human rights institutions, contributed to the understanding at the international level of the role that national human rights institutions play in the effective promotion and protection of human rights.

Recently, the ICC with the support of ninety UN Member States successfully advocated for the UN to increase the formal space for national human rights institutions to engage in all UN human rights processes and mechanisms. The UN General Assembly is set to formally adopt the resolution on national human rights institutions reflecting this decision later this month. The implementation of this resolution will enhance accountability for human rights at the international level especially within the processes that had not formally recognised the role of NHRIs. This is relevant now as international politics shifts to addressing security galvanised by acts of terrorism, violent conflict and the refugee crisis in Africa, Middle East and Europe.

Therefore, as we reflect on the International Bill of Rights today and in the coming year and as solutions to the crises beleaguering the world are sought it is important that national human rights institutions remain part of the global narrative to ensure that the pursuit of security whether national, regional or international does not infringe on human rights. This would ensure that our rights and our freedoms are ours always.
This day gives us an opportunity to really think of those countries and individuals who are embroiled in conflicts resulting in human rights violations and extreme sufferings of victims of these conflicts and to which them strength and courage to continue to redouble their efforts to find solutions to end these conflicts as matter of extreme urgency.


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