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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‘You can’t ignore human rights’: Meet the Georgian MPs determined to achieve change

This week, Georgian civil society organisations (CSOs) have been sharing with the Parliament’s Human Rights Committee the harrowing stories they’ve encountered through their work.

MPs will take these grim examples to the Government in Tbilisi – with the help of Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) and the UK embassy in Georgia.

“Currently no-one cares for him – neither parents, nor the State,” says Maia Gedevanishvili of the Apparatus of Public Defender of Georgia. She’s talking about an 18-year-old who came to her for help. “There’s no state policy regarding young people who aren’t under the care of the state anymore,” she explained. “He is not ready for fully independent life. He doesn’t have a proper education, or job, or home. It is essentially important to help this category of young people prepare for adult life.”

Mrs Gedevanishvili was given the opportunity to raise this case to MPs thanks to WFD’s programme with the Georgian Human Rights Committee. We’re aiming to increase the committee’s oversight; the Government is implementing its Human Rights Action Plan, which needs scrutiny.

On December 7, committee members visited homes for parentless children in Rustavi and Kojori. They were seeking to check the living conditions are consistent with the children’s rights. But they also heard from a range of organisations – including the Centre on the Protection of Civil and Political Rights.

“One of the main challenges our state faces and our organisation works on,” its spokesperson Vakhtang Kanashvili said, “is the conduct of the comprehensive investigation of facts concerning crimes of torture that occurred before 2012.” The Centre is calling for a firmer criminal policy and amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code in order to comply with international standards. “The next step must be the correct qualification of facts concerning crime of torture and the persons who perpetrated that crime must not be granted any kind of legal privilege, including plea bargaining,” Mr Kanashvili added. These are significant changes, but the MPs who are being lobbied believe they can help achieve them.

The committee’s chair, Eka Beselia, who was a lawyer advocating on human rights issues before her election to parliament, keenly feels the importance of her work. “I strongly believe that you can’t make a difference by ignoring human rights standards,” she says. “Any reform which doesn’t take human rights standards into account is doomed to failure.”

Mrs Beselia believes this engagement reflects the strength of feeling in her country. “The Georgian people very much know what human rights issues are, because they feel it. They’ve been through inappropriate treatment, they were themselves in many cases the victims of violations of human rights.” The language of the petitions and claims received by the committee reflects this, she adds. “They feel that human rights should be engrained in this country. They don’t trust the country, which is why they apply to the committee.”

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Among those participating in the December 7 field visit was the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, who highlighted the case of a businessman who was forced to give up his home to the state. “He was forced to sign a deed of gift,” Archil Kaikatsishvili explained. “He lost the property he gained through years of hard work. After the change of government he addressed our organisation and asked for legal assistance; despite our efforts, it was not possible for his violated rights to be restored.” Parliamentary scrutiny of the work of the Public Prosecutor will ensure the prosecution’s responses to the most burning questions will be answered.

These cases reflect the difficulties of dealing with a bleak legacy of human rights in Georgia – and the hope that a better future is now possible.

After the change of government in 2012, the country adopted the Human Rights Action Plan. Responsibility for oversight of its implementation has fallen to the new committee. It has received thousands of petitions concerning human rights violations since then. And it has an ongoing brief to hold the executive to account over its decisions on reforms to the judiciary, prison system and prosecutor’s office.

There is a broader context to the committee’s work, too. Georgia is seeking membership of the European Union and has signed an Association Agreement which helps it prepare its candidacy. So it’s important to the Government that it addresses ongoing human rights issues, which remain an enduring challenge. WFD is also bringing together the committee with CSOs to discuss legislation springing from the EU-Georgia Association Agreement.

Tamar Lukava of the Human Rights Centre highlighted an example of this: the findings of his organisation’s monitoring work in prisons. Among the continuing violations, he noted, was the practice of “the search of women by making them naked in order that they be confined or transferred to institutions”. Mr Lukava said he believes the Human Rights Committee will be able to work on the elimination of this problem.

Dialogue with European partners is an important part of the process. So the committee’s visit to London in early December to meet with civil society organisations, parliamentarians and government officials was helpful. “We might adopt some of the nuances we’ve learned from this trip,” Mrs Beselia says.

The biggest impact WFD has is the access it offers CSOs to this group of MPs. Much of our work around the world is focused on using our links with parliaments to help improve their effectiveness, and it’s CSOs as much as MPs who are the key beneficiaries. They certainly expressed their gratitude in Rustavi and Kojori.

georgia mps“The organisations involved were given the possibility to get a better understanding of the government’s Action Plan on Human Rights and the flaws of implementation,” Tamar Mudladze of Children Of Georgia said. “The project in question facilitates the mobilization process of organisations working in this sphere. It makes the cooperation between different sectors deeper and it facilitates coordinated actions in order the identified flaws to be eliminated. We would welcome that the project be continued in the future.”

WFD continues to implement its ongoing programme with the committee. A visit to minority groups in the southern part of Georgia, further presentations from CSOs of their findings and a conference on torture and inhumane treatment will all help MPs prepare their recommendations for the Government.

There is real optimism across Georgia about the impact the committee can have. “The outcome from this kind of cooperation is rapid and tangible,” says Elenne Pileeva of the ‘Article 42 of the Constitution’ organisation. “The Government increasingly tries to implement these recommendations – because it is responsible towards the Parliament.”

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Coalition of Women Arab MPs combat violence against women

On 5-6 November, WFD supported the Coalition of Arab Women MPs’ seminar on combating violence against women.

The event was hosted by the Lebanese Parliament, the Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Chair of the Lebanese Parliament’s Women’s Committee, MP Gilberte Zouain.

MP Gilberte, who has been a strong supporter of the coalition and spoke strongly of the need for change, said: “We aspire throughout this conference to benefit from the experience of Arab coutnries who have been pioneers in this domain and to re-establish Lebanon’s commitment to tackling violence against women.”

The seminar brought Lebanese MPs together with public institutions and women MPs from nine other Arab countries, creating a space to discuss the revision of Article 522 of the Lebanese Penal Code – which allows a rapist to avoid prosecution by marrying the victim.  The seminar highlighted the need for Parliament to act on this issue and showed the unity of Arab Women MPs in fighting such legislation. It’s a problem which exists in many other Arab countries’ penal codes: notably, Morocco and Egypt have amended the equivalent provisions in their penal codes.

The meetings were chaired by MP Wafaa Bani Mustafa of Jordan, who highlighted the important role of the coalition and their colleagues. She said: “We as parliamentarians are required to eliminate all types of legislative discrimination.”

All coalition members agreed on the need to empower victims through legislation; that there is no honour in violence against women; and that we need practical recommendations that lead to the abolition or amendment of legislation regarding rape marriage.

The delegation was hosted for lunch by Ms Randa Berri, Vice President of the National Commission for Lebanese Women.

(Pictured above: Ms Randa Berri, Vice president of the National Commission for Lebanese Women and MP Wafaa Bani Mustafa of Jordan)

The coalition meeting hosted a number of key speakers, including Dr Fadia Kiwan, Professor and Director at the Institute of Political Science at St Joseph University; and Abdelfattah Jamil from Jordan, who stressed the important role that men can play in advocacy and awareness-raising. The women commended the men in the room for their support.

Mr Nourredine Bouchkouj, Secretary General of the Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union, said: “On behalf of the Arab federation of parliamentarians I wish you all of the success in your deliberation so that we can get full equality for women for the good of our nations.”

(Pictured above: Dr Fadia Kiwan, Professor and director at the Institute of Political Science at St Joseph University)

WFD’s Dina Melhem highlighted individual cases that have pushed attention towards the issue but highlighted that we don’t truly know how many girls and women are living at home with their rapists, because they are forced to live in silence.

(Pictured above, Coalition meeting)

Hasna Marsit from Tunisia followed this by saying that where the law does protect them, women should be encouraged and supported to report their plight. The coalition can contribute to this change by building awareness of the issue and to provide a counter-narrative that empowers the victim, something they will be working on over the coming months. The Coalition will meet in January to mark the Arab day to combat violence against women.

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