National human rights institutions (NHRIs) are organisations that have been established by national governments with the specific role of protecting and promoting human rights. The mandate of NHRIs generally encompasses the full gamut of human rights, from civil and political to economic, social and cultural rights. The first NHRI was created in France in 1948. However, their global expansion fully took hold in the 1990s.
The normative departure point for discussion of NHRIs are the Paris Principles, devised in 1991 and adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1993. In formulating a definition, the Principles pay particular attention to the following attributes of the NHRI:
- Established in the national constitution or by law
- Role of the institution is clearly specified and the mandate is as broad as possible
- Pluralism in governing structures and independence of appointment procedures
- Infrastructure commensurate with functions, with particular importance attached to the need for adequate funding
- Ability to perform a monitoring, advisory and recommendation function on various matters relating to human rights
- Shall relate to regional and international organisations
- Shall promote public awareness, teaching and research on human rights
- Recognise the possibility of NHRIs possessing ‘quasi-jurisdictional’ functions e.g. the handling of individual complaints or petitions on human rights grounds.
The Principles require NHRIs to assume five principle functions: (1) promote human rights, (2) advise governments on human rights protection, (3) review human rights legislation, (4) prepare human rights reports, and (5) receive and investigate complaints from the public. The UN-affiliated International Coordinating Committee of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (ICC) identifies 119 NHRIs worldwide, with 63 fully accredited in accordance with the Paris Principles.
In practice, NHRIs take a variety of forms and their strict adherence to the Paris Principles vary considerably, especially in terms of composition and function. This is unsurprising given the different expectations and demands attached to these institutions in a diverse range of political, institutional and historical context.
A broad interpretation of NHRIs includes human rights commissions, hybrid or human rights ombudsmen, classical ombudsmen who perform a human rights function, and advisory committees. Ombudsmen offices exist on a spectrum, with some closer to the classical mandate of administrative fairness and legality at one end and others which use human rights as explicit standards of control at the other end of the spectrum. Similarly, human rights commission can also be said to occupy a spectrum from, at one end, those that enjoy strong remedial powers and address individual complaints, to others that act as governmental advisory bodies or educational research institutes and do not receive citizens’ grievances.The delineation of basic types of NHRIs raises a number of dilemmas as the lines between models become increasingly blurred. This is especially true of hybrid institutions found predominantly in Central and Eastern Europe and Latin America. Beyond institutional design, the litmus test of any NHRI is its contribution to human rights protection and promotion on the ground.