Item 18(b) – Effective functioning of human rights mechanisms: National institutions and regional arrangements

Following intervention was made by AYE HLA PHYU on behalf of Asian Legal Resource Centre on the afternoon of 17 April 2000

Dear Mr. Chairman,

For some time now, several countries in Asia have promised to establish National Human Rights Commissions. These countries include South Korea, Bangladesh and Nepal.  However, despite prolonged discussions, these institutions have not yet been established.  One of the reasons is the unresolved problems relating to powers of the commissions.  India, Sri Lanka, Philippines and Indonesia  have already established National Human Rights Commissions.

The National Human Rights Commission [of India] came into being through an Ordinance on 25 September, 1993. The Ordinance was replaced by an Act called Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993 which came into force in January 1994.  The primary function of the National Human Rights Commission is to inquire into complaints of Human Rights violations.  It may be seen that the National Human Rights Commission has no power to take any binding decision.  It is, for this purpose, helplessly dependent on the High Courts/Supreme Court of the concerned Governments, and the role of the National Human Rights Commission here is that of a Petitioner, a supplicant.  The recommendations of the National Human Rights Commission has no legal sanction.

The [Indian HR] Commission receives thousands of complaints from individuals, from NG0s, activists and other concerned groups each year. For the period 1996-97 the number was 20,833.  Many cases are left pending, in spite of attempts by the Commission to simplify procedures and make structural changes.  The Commission, in most of these cases, employed the post-office procedure which meant asking State Governments to investigate the allegations and inform the Commission of the action taken.  It is noted that the investigative option vested in the Commission was very rarely exercised.  The Commission is forced to place immense faith in the State Governments and their investigative machinery, against whom the  majority of the complaints are targeted – not a very satisfactory procedure.  The Annual Report of the Commission for 1996-97 says “In many cases which were entrusted by the Commission to the State agencies for investigation, the Commission was not satisfied with the quality of work.”

National Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka has extensive powers and there has been no record of inadequate resources. However, its performance has in no way impressed the nation. It suffers from an internal incapacity to act, while the situation of grave human rights abuse prevailing in the country calls for a very active commission.  The Commission adheres to red tape bureaucratic methods and thereby fails to understand that the very making of this type of national institution is supposed to stop such practices.  In a country where there is enormous delays in hearing court cases (for example a civil cases may generally go on for ten years, and often even longer), the Commission has so far failed to create a counter culture of speed and access. With regard complaints of torture, the commission adopts the method of private discussions with the law enforcement agencies and generally does not conduct open inquiries, even though it has power to do so.  These procedures take place in a situation where law enforcement has collapsed to a great extent and there are massive numbers very serious crimes.

The [SL HR] Commission can try to help the law enforcement agencies to cope with this anarchic situation by making recommendations which its mandate allows it to make.  Generally, there is a serious lack of public confidence in this national Commission. The responsibility for this situation lies mostly the commission itself.  There are serous problems of access to persons from outstations and even in the capital there is no access to the commission on Saturdays and Sundays.  Use of modern communication techniques such as email could remedy the present situation. Given the very difficult situation the country is in (at least one country has named Colombo as the most dangerous city the world), the commission’s performance must be treated as appalling and morally unbecoming.

Thank you Mr. Chairman.


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The Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC) works towards the radical rethinking & fundamental redesigning of justice institutions in Asia, to ensure relief and redress for victims of human rights violations, as per Common Article 2 of the International Conventions. Sister organisation to the Asian Human Rights Commission, the ALRC is based in Hong Kong & holds general consultative status with the Economic & Social Council of the United Nations.

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