By Gyan Basnet and Mansoor Hassan Albalooshi
Standards, norms and values of international human rights law have long been generated at a universal level but depend for their implementation upon institutions at the local level. Over the past two decades, one phenomenon has become widely celebrated as the key to making human rights matter and that is the spread of national human rights institutions (NHRIs) around the world. In 1991 a United Nations-sponsored consultation on ‘national human rights institutions’ resulted in a landmark statement entitled ‘Principles Relating to the Status and Functioning of National Institutions for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights’, since known as the ‘Paris Principles’. With consultations from government representatives, UN agencies, non-governmental organizations, and regional human rights bodies, the Principles established guidance on the status, powers and functioning of NHRIs.
NHRIs today play a crucial role in the domestic implementation of national human rights norms. They are the new actors in the human rights arena, and many have now been established to strengthen the domestic mechanisms for human rights protection and promotion. With them have come great expectations at national level, not only to implement human rights and to protect people’s fundamental freedoms, but also to provide a bridge between international and national human rights protection systems.
The UAE is already party to numerous international human rights instruments that offer valuable guidance to government and confirm the commitment of the government to promote and protect human rights. However, the UAE’s free market economy has experienced phenomenal growth over a very short time span. The UAE has become the golden gate of the Arab World and the outstanding symbol of change in the region. The scale of its socio-economic development has made it a major destination for traders, investors, recruiters, tourists, labourers (legal and illegal), and even crooks and criminals. The economic development of the country has not only brought prosperity for the nation but at the same time has led to many social crises including problems of human rights.
Neighbouring countries of the UAE such as Qatar, Jordan and Oman have already established human rights institutions, as bodies independent of government, to promote and protect human rights and civil liberties. Is it not time that the UAE established also one? This article argues why the establishment of such a commission is essential and sets out reasons why the UAE needs a separate constitutional body to deal with human rights issues.
First, the international community increasingly recognises NHRIs as essential for ensuring effective national implementation of international human rights standards. Moreover, NHRIs not only help to ensure effective implementation, but they are an important repository of human rights knowledge and experience.
Second, an NHRI is needed not only to protect the rights of people that are infringed but also to promote a culture in which such infringement is far less likely to occur. There are significant gaps in the protection provided by the court, by parliament, by governmental departments and by NGOs and INGOs. A national institution is vital not only to provide remedies but also to promote a change of culture among public bodies, thus reducing the need for litigation. This will not happen without a statutory body as a means for change.
Third, in today’s world, human rights institutions play a legitimizing role. To be specific, as critics argue, NHRIs ‘signal the stamp of democratic legitimacy on the deal arrived at: they constitute part of the ‘politically correct’ approach to constitutionalism.’ As an NHRI occupies a unique space between government and civil society, its location close to government places it in a position to engage with government officials and influence policy, and an access that few other organizations have. It also enables it to negotiate with non-governmental actors and act as an umbrella for human rights NGOs.
Fourth, human rights are not only a matter of law, essential though that protection is, but an ethical code which requires people to treat each other with dignity and respect. The new body in the UAE would conduct public inquiries, assist the UN in scrutinizing the country’s record on human rights, and speak on issues which the government or other state functionaries may avoid. It would have authority to speak on human rights issues for the country as a whole, and other national institutions would be likely to benefit from it.
Finally, NHRIs are created largely to satisfy international audiences; they are the result of state adaptation. An NHRI can act as a bridge between those who govern and those who are governed. It can guide the country towards a more democratic and human rights regime and enhance the nation’s reputation in the international arena.
Respect for the human rights of others is the essence of social responsibility and of peoples’ mutual obligations, be it towards those to whom public services are provided or simply towards neighbours and family. Therein lies the issue of a culture of human rights. Thus the establishment of an NHRI similar to those in neighbouring countries will be an important step in this regard.
The key elements of any such NHRI should be its independence and its non-political nature. The Paris Principles emphasize that NHRIs should be established with a constitutional or legislative mandate in order to safeguard their independence. They emphasize the need for competence and ‘as broad a mandate as possible’. Their responsibilities include giving advice to government, parliament and others, examining legislation and administrative measures for compliance with human rights standards, considering violations, preparing reports on human rights matters, reacting to events, plus teaching and research. Thus, the NHRI must establish a close, yet independent, relationship with government, if it is to have any influence over policy and government decisions.
It is important that the UAE takes this initiative to join fully the international human rights culture, thus becoming part of an international community that is committed to upholding the highest standards of international human rights. An NHRI independent from government, and based on solid legal or constitutional foundations and capable of cooperating with civil society, the media, the NGOs/INGOs and the wider public is vital to the country. Its duties must include the provision of guidance to public authorities, as well as to private and voluntary bodies about their human rights obligations. It should monitor the level of respect shown on human rights and advise the government on the adequacy of existing laws and practices.
The UAE is already committed to becoming a model for change in the region and to working as an active member of international community. It welcomes collaboration with other governments and international organizations that share the same vision of stemming the tide of fundamental freedom violations. The UAE strongly defends the United Nations mechanisms that promote the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In tackling its human rights challenges, the UAE is resolute about improving its own record and contributing effectively at international level.
This aspiration also stems from its cultural heritage and religious values, which enshrine justice, equality and tolerance. The establishment of an NHRI in the country will open new doors for the UAE. It will guide the country towards even greater success as well as greater respect in the international political forum. The time is right: the choice awaits.
Dr Gyan Basnet, who holds a Ph.D. and an LL.M degree in International Human Rights Law at Lancaster University, U.K, is a prominent columnist, researcher in International Human Rights Law and an Advocate in the Supreme Court Nepal.
Major Mansoor Hassan Albalooshi is a Dubai police officer, Columnist and PhD candidate at Lancaster University Law School in the UK.