Since the early 1990s, national human rights institutions (NHRIs) have become prominent instruments for the enforcement of human rights on the national level. While in 1990 only few NHRIs existed in the OSCE region, these bodies now exist in more that 40 OSCE participating States. Generally, NHRIs are public institutions independent from the executive that promote and monitor states’ implementation of and compliance with their obligations to protect human rights. These bodies are state-funded, permanent and independent, and are usually established by constitutional mandate, legislation, or still in rare cases by a presidential executive order. The mandate includes the power to protect and promote economic, social and cultural rights as well as civil and political rights.
While their main role is to protect and promote human rights at the national level, NHRI increasingly play a role at the international level. They advocate for the ratification of international treaties and support the implementation of recommendations from international mechanisms. Once accredited as compliant with international standards according to the United Nations Principles relating to the Status of National Institutions, the so-called Paris Principles , NHRIs may speak in their own right at the UN Human Rights Council about the human rights situation in their country and can provide reports to UN treaty bodies in addition to and independently from written submissions by state parties.
At the national level, NHRIs exercise their functions in many different ways. Typical functions include processing and resolving human rights complaints filed by citizens and inhabitants of a country against public authorities, making policy recommendations to government, promoting national laws and practices that conform to international standards, conducting inquiries into significant allegations of abuse, and promoting human rights in the community in general. Often NHRIs chose to focus on specific areas seeking to protect the most vulnerable and marginalized groups of society such as minorities, women, children, the elderly and disabled, and detainees.
The terminology of “NHRIs” encompasses different types of bodies, mainly human rights commissions, ombuds offices and human rights institutes/human rights centres. While in the Asian-Pacific region and Africa, NHRIs have been established mostly as human rights commissions, most NHRIs in the OSCE region exist in the form of Ombuds Offices.
One of the most important roles of NHRIs is to provide recommendations to governments on specific and general human rights issues, such as government human rights policies, or the ratification of international treaties. In addition, NHRIs are in many cases invested with the responsibility to review existing legislation and initiate discussions on new legislation pertaining to any human rights-related topic or to suggest reforms of the laws.
Especially Ombuds Offices further receive and investigate complaints of individuals of human rights abuses. The role of these independent bodies is primarily focused on investigating such alleged abuses and then publishing the results of these investigations, often also on conciliation or arbitration of issues. Only in very exceptional cases do such bodies have the authority to impose legally binding outcomes on parties to complaints proceedings. Finally, most NHRIs are often entrusted with the responsibility of improving community awareness of human rights issues.
Ombuds Offices across the OSCE area have a variety of titles, including Ombudsman (i.a., Austria, Azerbaijan, Serbia, Tajikistan), Chancellor of Justice (Estonia), Human Rights Defender (Georgia), Ombudsperson (Kosovo), Public Defender (Albania), Protector of Citizens (Serbia), Defensor del Pueblo (Spain), Provedor de Justiça (Portugal) or Commissioner for Civil Rights Protection (Poland).
An indigenous Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish term, Ombudsman is etymologically rooted in the Old Norse word umboðsmaðr, essentially meaning a male "representative". An ombudsperson is an official, usually appointed by parliament, who is charged with representing the interests of the public by investigating and addressing complaints reported by individual citizens.
While the ‘classical’ Ombuds Office (exemplified by the Volksanwaltschaft in Austria) is mainly mandated to exercise control over public administration, most Ombuds Offices in the OSCE area today are hybrid institutions, combining their mandated functions to look into maladministration as well as human rights protection.
Most Ombuds Institutions are led by one person, namely the Ombudsperson. Bosnia and Herzegovina constitutes an exception within the OSCE whereby its specific political setting requires the appointment of three Ombudspersons. In other cases plurality and diversity is sought by establishing an Advisory Council or Public Committee, or by ensuring diversity among deputies to the Ombudsperson.
Although the specific mandates of Ombudspersons vary from country to country, all follow similar procedures in the performance of their duties. The Ombudsperson receives complaints from members of the public and, if a violation of rights can be identified, initiates an investigation. In order to effectively carry out this task, the Ombudsman is generally granted access to the documents of all relevant public authorities.
Individuals may lodge complaints directly with the Ombuds Office or, as is the case in some countries, may be required to submit their complaints to an intermediary such as a Member of Parliament. It is important to note that in some jurisdictions, the Ombudsperson can also investigate a possible violation of human rights of his/her own accord, meaning in cases where no such specific complaint has been lodged. This practice is particularly common when the Ombudsperson identifies a particularly serious potential violation, or where such a violation affects an entire group of persons. Certain countries have specialized Ombudspersons, e.g. special Ombudspersons for Children’s Rights, for Persons with Disabilities, or for Gender Equality. These thematically specialized bodies would commonly not be defined as NHRIs but rather as independent national mechanisms.
Human Rights Commissions
National human rights commissions, on the other hand, are typically expected to have broad advisory and educational roles. They are headed by a body consisting of several commissioners, often thematically focused on different areas of human rights. In the OSCE area, Ireland has a human rights commission, as does France, Greece, United Kingdom, as well as Scotland and Northern Ireland. The main objective of a human rights commission is to ensure that laws and regulations concerning the promotion and protection of human rights are applied properly.
National human rights institutes and centres
Predominantly in some northern European states, human rights centres/institutes were developed. These types of NHRIs exist in Germany (the German Institute for Human Rights), in Denmark (the Danish Institute for Human Rights) and Norway (the Center for Human Rights). The work of these institutions is often research-based which is used for advocacy purposes. In addition, most of the institutes have a further strong focus on educational activities. In general, institutions of this nature do not deal with individual complaints.
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