National Human Rights Institutions and Civil Society Organizations: New Dynamics of Engagement at Domestic, Regional, and International Levels

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This article examines the dynamics of engagement between national human rights institutions (NHRIs) and civil society organizations (CSOs) in the Asia Pacific region. It explores the role of CSOs in the establishment of NHRIs and argues that this history is essential to understanding the experience of NHRIs within different states. Second, it explores the evolution and impact of networks of NHRIs and CSOs in a region that currently lacks a supranational mechanism for promoting and protecting human rights. Finally, it considers the potential for CSOs to utilize the evolving processes of the International Coordinating Committee of Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (ICC) to strengthen the independence and effectiveness of NHRIs. KEYWORDS: NHRIs, CSOs, ICC, Asia Pacific region.

IN 2003, SONIA CARDENAS DESCRIBED "A NEW AND SIGNIFICANT DEVELOPMENT in the field of human rights: the UN-led proliferation of national human rights institutions (NHRIs)." (1) Since then, increasing attention has been paid to the role of these state-based, but nominally independent, institutions in promoting and protecting human rights. The potential importance of NHRIs stems from their location within the state. NHRIs are (ideally) vectors for the norms of international human rights law, transmitting them from the global sphere of UN treaties and treaty bodies to the domestic arena where they can be promoted through education, protected in legislation, and enforced by the executive. Because of their accessibility, independent and well-resourced institutions, which possess a broad mandate and wide-ranging powers, have the potential to significantly increase the level of human rights protection afforded to citizens. In the wake of Cardenas's article, scholars have studied the establishment of NHRIs in diverse political systems; (2) the work of NHRIs in transposing international human rights from the international to the national levels; (3) the issue of how NHRIs, created and funded by the state, can maintain legitimacy and effectiveness; (4) and whether or not, and how, the impact of NHRIs can be measured. (5)

As more states have established NHRIs and more scholars have examined their work, the contested nature of NHRIs has become more visible. While some NHRIs have been successful in effecting positive change and have assumed a central role in the political life of the state, shaping the discourse on human rights and inspiring new understandings of the responsibilities of the state toward its citizens, others have been paralyzed in Situations of conflict and still others have succumbed to politicization. (6) Many NHRIs seek a path between building relationships with governments so that they can collaborate on human rights policy and being independent enough to criticize governments when their human rights programs fall short. This is a difficult line to walk and, at different periods in relation to some human rights issues, some commissions become--or are perceived to be--sidelined. John von Doussa, former president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, reminds us "how fragile these types of organisations are, and when they start to challenge the authority of the ruling power, then they are terribly fragile." (7)

In this article, I aim to shed new light on the nature and potential of NHRIs by examining an area that has previously received little attention--the relationship between civil society organizations (CSOs) and NHRIs. (8) This is an area of practical significance for human rights policymakers and practitioners, as the CSO/NHRI relationship is a central dynamic in the creation and maintenance of effective NHRIs. Positive CSO/NHRI engagement is a feature of all NIIRIs, which are perceived as legitimate, credible institutions--by government, by regional peers, and by the international community. Concomitantly, in cases where CSO/NHRI relations are strained or nonexistent, NHRIs inevitably suffer a crisis of legitimacy. …