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Volume 12 Number 1
New Delhi, Spring 2005

An Important Commonwealth Partnership

- Clare Doube
Coordinator, Strategic Planning and Programmes

From Malawi to Fiji to India and beyond, Commonwealth countries need assistance in ensuring that the human rights of all are actively promoted and protected from violation. While primary responsibility lies with governments, other actors also have a crucial role to play particularly National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) and civil society, including non-governmental organisations (NGOs). On countless occasions they have protected rights and brought the government to account. Collaboration between them can, if conducted effectively, increase the impact of their individual actions. However, there has been little research done on the forms this collaboration can take, its pitfalls and lessons learned.

A workshop organised in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in November 2004 by the British Council and National Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka to discuss this was therefore a welcome initiative. The workshop included NGO and NHRI representatives from Asia, Africa and the Pacific, and culminated in a final declaration.

The workshop recognised that NHRIs and NGOs are different types of bodies, with different mandates, structures, ways of working, strengths and limitations. These distinct but complimentary identities need to be recognised when collaborating, and the roles articulated, especially as the capacity of NHRIs and NGOs vary considerably between countries. However, having considered these issues, it is obvious that collaborative efforts can minimize resources and maximize impact, and should therefore be encouraged.

Following presentations from NHRI and NGO perspectives, the workshop was divided into working groups on: education, public information and training; investigations; monitoring; and international advocacy. Recommendations from the international advocacy working group, for instance, included:

  • publicising UN processes such as treaty bodies and their monitoring, particularly following up on recommendations made to countries;
  • dialoguing with government delegations before meetings such as the UN Commission on Human Rights;
  • advocating for UN Special Rapporteurs visits;
  • participating in joint human rights platforms at Commonwealth meetings, such as the Commonwealth Human Rights Forum; and
  • advocating for NHRI and NGO access to important Commonwealth meetings to make human rights statements and dialogue with government.

The workings of the two types of institutions was also discussed. It was reiterated that the Paris Principles, by which all NHRIs should abide, are only minimum standards. The Paris Principles include that the NHRI: is independent as guaranteed by statute or constitution; is autonomous from government; is plural and diverse, including in membership; has a broad mandate based on universal human rights standards; has adequate powers of investigation; and has sufficient resources. These are the minimum standards expected to enable NHRIs to do their job effectively and free from interference.

As well as collaboration between individual NHRIs and NGOs, two pan-Commonwealth networks provide an opportunity for broader collaboration: the Commonwealth National Human Rights Commissions Project of the British Council draws together the NHRIs; and the Commonwealth Human Rights Network (set up by CHRI, the Commonwealth Policy Studies Unit and the Association of Commonwealth Amnesty International Sections) brings together civil society groups working on human rights in the Commonwealth. It is hoped that these two networks can work together in enabling NHRI and NGO involvement in the next Commonwealth Human Rights Forum in Malta in 2005. Considerable support was expressed for the Forum and its ability to act as a platform for discussion and collaboration, as well as a springboard for advocacy. With more such initiatives it is hoped that collaborative efforts between NHRIs and NGOs will become reality and a force for human rights promotion and protection across the Commonwealth.


CHRI Newsletter, Spring 2005

Editors: Vaishali Mishra & Clare Doube, CHRI;
Print: Anshu Tejpal, Electronic:
Jyoti Bhargava, CHRI; Web Developer: Swayam Mohanty, CHRI.
Acknowledgement: Many thanks to all contributors

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The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) is an independent international NGO mandated to ensure the practical realisation of human rights in the Commonwealth.