Rights And Human Rights

NHRC May be Downgraded to ‘B’ Status

Aritra Bhattacharya

Lack of diversity in staffand leadership. Political interference in appointments. Involvement of police officers in investigations of human rights violations. Lack of cooperation with civil society. Insufficient action to protect marginalised groups.

These are the reasons cited by a global alliance of human rights organisations in deferring the accreditation of India’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) for the second time in nearly a quarter century.

If the NHRC, India’s apex body for the promotion and protection of human rights does not address concerns and recommendations, it may be downgraded to ‘B’ status during the next review in 2024.

The NHRC’s ‘A’ status was put on hold during the latest round (20-24 March 2023) of accreditation by the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI), which represents more than 110 human-rights organisations worldwide.

The deferral, which came after the NHRC failed to address GANHRI concerns raised in 2017, followed a review and submissions made to it by national and global human-rights organisations, which urged it to take note of what they said was a worsening human-rights situation in India.

Neither the NHRC nor the government has issued a formal response to GANHRI’s review, which is done every five years.

The global alliance works with the UN Human Rights Office, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and other UN agencies, as well as with other international and regional organisations, NGOs, civil society and academia, reviewing the performance of national human rights institutions across the world.

This review gauges compliance with the Paris Principles, internationally recognised standards, which require national human rights institutions to have a broad mandate; inclusive, transparent selection and appointment process for the leadership; be independent both in law and practice; have access to sufficient resources and staff; and cooperate with national and international stakeholders.

An ‘A’ status is conferred on institutions that are fully compliant with the Principles. A ‘B’ status indicates partial compliance.

All national human rights institutions that hold an ‘A’ status are subject to re-accreditation every five years. Decisions on accreditation are deferred when institutions fail to comply fully with the Paris Principles.

This is the second time that the NHRC has lost its ‘A’ status since it was first categorised thus in 1999. The Commission retained its status in the 2006 and 2011 reviews. In 2016, its accreditation was deferred by 12 months; in November 2017, it was re-accredited as ‘A’.

At its March 2023 session, GANHRI’s sub- committee on accreditation, which meets in Geneva twice every year to consider accreditation applications, deferred the review of India’s NHRC for 12 months.

If the NHRC does not address the sub committee’s concerns, it may be downgraded to B in the next review.

Similar treatment was meted out to national human rights institutions of only two other of 13 countries subjected to review—Costa Rica and Northern Ireland, where accreditation was deferred by 12 and six months respectively.

The Commission also “has not taken sufficient action in protecting the rights of marginalised groups,” and it “did not provide sufficient information with regards to how it implements its full mandate to monitor, promote, and protect the rights of everyone,” the sub- committee noted.

The NHRC lost its ‘A’ status despite changes in its composition in line with recommendations made by the sub- committee in 2017, and a reduction in the backlog and disposal time of complaints. The decision drew, in large measure, from advocacy by a range of civil society groups and international non-governmental organisations.

Human rights groups and activists in India welcomed GANHRI’s decision, arguing that it reflected the deteriorating situation of human rights in the country, as well as the NHRC’s failure to come to the aid of human rights defenders.

The Protection of Human Rights Act 1993 requires that NHRC inquire into violations of human rights by state actors, either by addressing complaints from victims and defenders or by taking cognisance of violations of its own accord. Its statutory mandate is to protect human rights and establish accountability for their violation.

In its 2017 recommendations, the GANHRI sub- committee urged NHRC to address the lack of diversity within—there were no women or representatives from other marginalised social groups among five Commission members then, and only 20% of the staff was women.

An amendment to the Protection of Human Rights Act in 2019 sought to address these concerns. It increased the members of the Commission from five to six, including three persons and at least one woman with knowledge or practical experience of human rights.

The amendment also made chairpersons of the National Commission for Backward Classes and the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, and the Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities deemed members of the NHRC.

The sub-committee on accreditation provided a detailed analysis of NHRC’s deviation from the Paris Principles.

The NHRC’s members, including the secretary general, were “seconded from public service”, the report said. Police officers were engaged in probing human rights violations, including those committed by police. There was no woman in NHRC’s leadership body.

The most scathing comments in the report pertained to NHRC’s record on addressing human rights issues, and cooperating with civil society.

“The relationship between the NHRC and civil society is not effective or constructive,” particularly with respect to the Commission’s core group on non-government organisa-tions and human rights defenders, said the GANHRI report.

This was corroborated by civil society groups and activists in India.

The report said the Commission had failed “to exercise its mandate in relation to reviewing laws regarding civil liberties and fundamental rights”, such as the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act or FCRA 2010, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act or CAA 2019, and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act or UAPA 1967.

The BharatiyaJanata Party government of Prime Minister NarendraModi has, in combination with national-interest narratives and surveillance technology, used these laws to stifle dissent and create a security playbook.

The targets of such government action include advocacy groups and think tanks, such as Amnesty International, the Centre for Policy Research and the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, whose FCRA licenses were cancelled or withheld by the Ministry of Home Affairs.

Ahead of the latest review, a number of civil society groups and NGOs submitted statements to GANHRI alleging the NHRC’s non-compliance with the Paris Principles.

(Aritra Bhattacharya is a journalist and researcher based in Kolkata. Source: Article 14)

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Vol 56, No. 50, Jun 9 - 15, 2024