Human Rights Commission gets an ‘A’ | Sunday Observer

Human Rights Commission gets an ‘A’

HRC Chairperson Dr. Deepika Udagama addressing the media to announce the HRC’s achievement
HRC Chairperson Dr. Deepika Udagama addressing the media to announce the HRC’s achievement

Three years after the passage of the 19th Amendment which empowered and strengthened independent commissions, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka led by its dynamic Chairperson Dr. Deepika Udagama, attains ‘A’ grade accreditation as a national human rights institution

For a country that has been hounded by allegations of human rights violations in the recent past, it was a moment of remarkable achievement this week when the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka was presented with ‘A’ grade accreditation, which is the highest accreditation level possible for such an institution by the Global Alliance for National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI) in recognition of its untiring efforts to promote and protect human rights in Sri Lanka.

GANHRI assesses compliance with the Paris Principles of 1993 when according such ‘grades’ in particular, the level of political independence that a national institution has, both in law and practice.

The A grading is a sign that the HRCSL is finally casting off a checkered past and gaining recognition internationally as a truly independent Commission mandated to investigate human rights violations and measure state compliance with its rights obligations.

According to Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission, Dr Deepika Udagama, the announcement is an achievement of the whole country and not that of the Commission only. The reason, she says, is due to the people’s agitation and support to ensure that the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was adopted which in turn assured the independence of the commissions.

“If not for the 19th Amendment it would have been difficult to achieve this high accreditation” Dr Udagama said, with independence being one of the key criteria to be awarded the grading.

According to her if not for the 19th Amendment and the appointment process all the commissioners would also not be occupying the seats at the HRC. “None of us are persons who would accept political appointments” she said.

Paris Principles

In fact, a local human rights commission or any other mechanism implemented for the purpose is expected to adhere to the Paris Principles adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1993. According to the Principles a human rights commission or protection body must investigate complaints, respond to them and ensure resolution while also advancing the respective governments on human rights matters.

Grading is granted therefore, through a strict analysis to ensure that local bodies are adhering to these principles as stipulated.

“What is expected is that the commissions are independent, it has sufficient powers to function and freedom to do what is expected in order to protect human rights” Dr Udagama noted.

While Sri Lanka in previous years such as 2000, 2007 and 2009 had applied to upgrade its accreditation, unfortunately, she failed in her attempts. During those years the Commission was granted ‘B’ grade accreditation. The reason, was the seeming lack of independence of the commission in existence during the time.

According to Udagama, though the 17th Amendment to the Constitution stipulated that appointments be made through a Constitutional Council this was not the practice, resulting in the commissions at the time receiving a ‘B’ grading. Not actively looking into complaints of disappearances was also yet another allegation against previous commissions which resulted in its application to upgrade its ranking being rejected.

She says, the accreditation is important not only for international purposes, but also for the people of the country because it tells the people that they now have a Human Rights Commission that is reliable and will fearlessly look at rights issues.

The journey towards this A Grade rating however, has not been easy.

Like all other independent commissions, HRCSL also has had to face bureaucratic red tape and staffing and infrastructure issues. With a huge caseload of complaints annually, HRCSL Commissioners say staffing issues make it difficult to expedite investigations.

Dr Udagama says, HRCSL gets 9,000-10,000 complaints every month. She says, it is imperative therefore, that the Commission is able to hire the necessary employees that are dedicated to ensuring human rights to efficiently provide its services to the public. “This accreditation was obtained amid a great many difficulties” she said, recalling that at first it did not even have building space to establish the Office.

Outdated bureaucratic processes that impede the work of institutions should be reformed, the HRCSL Chairperson noted. “Government processes must be transparent and accountable – but it must also be efficient,” she reiterated.

Compliance

She also noted that it is one of the main duties of the Commission to advise the government on policies in order to maintain the human rights compliance with the aim of protecting the rights of the people, but not being able to scrutinize these draft laws prior to being approved has made their task only more difficult. Dr Udagama said, even though the Commission is aware that a new National Security Act is being drafted, they have not been consulted officially, yet.

“These Bills and Drafts play a huge role in the lives of people and it is very important for the government to consult the Commission on these matters” she said.

International rights activists hailed the new grading for the HRCSL.

Senior Analyst and Project Director of International Crisis Group for Sri Lanka Alan Keenan, told the Sunday Observer that the restoration of A status to Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commission was certainly deserved. “In the past few years we have seen the NHRCSL campaign vigorously in favour of strengthened rights protections” he said. “The Commission has regularly challenged the government on a range of policies, including the highly flawed draft legislation for a counter terrorism law,” he noted.

However, he also pointed out that still, the Commission faces huge challenges.

“Too much of its recent progress depends on the unusual dedication and hard work of its Commissioners, who have few trained staff and limited resources to support their efforts” he said, voicing the same concerns of the HRC itself. He also noted that any lasting improvement in the Commission would depend not only on the quality of future appointments by the Constitutional Council but also sustained training of staff and the government’s willingness to respect its findings and its full range of powers, including its statutory right to review draft legislation.

Meanwhile, Tejshree Thapa, Senior South Asia Researcher for Human Rights Watch noted that HRCSL under Dr Udagama, had demanded and largely received the level of independence that the institution deserves under the Paris Principles. But, as Thapa points out, in the future, however, it is critical that this government or any subsequent government continues to afford the Commission independence.

“This is important not simply for the Commission but for the victims and witnesses they serve, because national human rights institutions are meant to be safeguards against abuse, and should always be allowed to go about their work unfettered,” Thapa asserted.

Dr Udagama says, the Commission has to go a long way to fulfil its mandate in a very effective manner. “The accreditation does not mean the Commission is perfect” she said, adding that they understand the Commission will have many obstacles ahead”.

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