A new way of sizing up Parliamentary Human Rights Committees

Parliamentary Human Rights Committees face challenges around resource, effectiveness and value-add. Assessing their progress has remained a challenge in itself – until now.

Today sees the publication of a report summing up the first applications of a new assessment tool for human rights committees.

The tool, developed through Westminster Foundation for Democracy’s research programme with Oxford University, gives practitioners a clear way of assessing parliaments’ capacity to monitor human rights policy against a new ‘best practice’ standard.

Having applied the tool to six countries – Georgia (pictured above), Macedonia, Serbia, Uganda, Ukraine and Tunisia – report authors Brian Chang and Graeme Ramshaw are able to provide a detailed picture about the progress of human rights committees in these countries and the common problems they face.

“One part of the answer to these challenges may be for parliaments and parliamentary human rights committees to improve their practices and learn from good practices around the world,” the report concludes.

“Parliamentary human rights committees in particular need to maximise how they use the resources they can expect to be made available to them.” The committees cannot work alone, either; they need to work together with national and international partners, as well as think strategically.

Strengthening parliaments’ human rights work remains a work in progress. “This study found that none of the six parliaments and parliamentary human rights committees studied had fully adopted all the key practices (indeed, not even the UK Parliament or its Joint Committee on Human Rights has done so) that would enable them to discharge that role effectively, although all of them did well in at least a number of areas,” the report stated. It provides a series of general recommendations which can help the committees continue to improve their work.

The report builds on WFD’s ongoing work supporting parliaments’ focus on human rights, which began in 2008. George Kunnath, WFD’s Regional Director for Europe and Africa, describes WFD’s early work in this area in the report’s foreword.

Through the Westminster Consortium for Parliaments and Democracy programme, he explains, WFD worked with committees in Ukraine, Georgia, Lebanon, Uganda, Morocco and Mozambique to strengthen their scrutiny of legislation that would impact on individual freedoms. The project worked closely with the UK’s Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) and the International Bar Association Human Rights Institute.

George Kunnath recalls:

“It was during this programme that I engaged with Murray Hunt, the JCHR’s Chief Legal Advisor, who shared with me his proposed Draft Principles and Guidelines on the Role of Parliaments in the Protection and Realisation of the Rule of Law and Human Rights. I immediately realised the potential of using these principles as the basis for a comprehensive assessment tool that would allow WFD to determine the capabilities of a parliament to protect the rights of their citizens. The outcomes of such a detailed assessment tool would help identify areas of development for future programming.”

Today that potential is realised. There is already evidence that the assessment tool is influencing the work of these committees. When its findings were presented to the Georgian Human Rights Committee in January 2016, its members responded with gratitude for the practical nature of the recommendations – and, as George Kunnath puts it, “shock at the realisation of the extent of work within a human rights committee’s remit that they were unaware of and that they were not fulfilling”.

The tool will help shape WFD’s ongoing approach to promoting human rights. Our work in this area covers a number of countries, as described in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Human Rights and Democracy 2015 report:

In Georgia, its Parliament’s Human Rights Committee spent 2015 scrutinising the Georgian government’s progress towards its Association Agreement with the EU. WFD helped bring Georgian parliamentarians together with civil society organisations. WFD also improved the link between civil society organisations and Parliament in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). A group of female Members of the DRC Parliament successfully worked with campaigners to introduce a proposed change in legislation to establish a quota for women’s representation amongst the chiefs selected to serve within the Provincial Assembly of Province Orientale. WFD believes human rights are best protected within a democratic culture. Its work aims to foster this by improving Parliaments’ capacity to scrutinise the actions of their governments effectively. In 2015, WFD helped new MPs by providing induction training in Kyrgyzstan; encouraged dialogue on anti-corruption in Tunisia and Iraq; and supported improved parliamentary financial oversight in Morocco, Ukraine and Serbia.

All of this work will benefit from the assessment tool – and we hope it can help others, too. As George Kunnath puts it: “I hope that those reading the report will appreciate the pioneering nature of this work and the benefits it will provide to legislative strengthening work around the world.”

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