The U.S. Needs a Human Rights Institute to Reform the International System
About half the countries in the world have some form of National Human Rights Institute (NHRI), which are meant to promote and implement international human rights standards in the countries where they exist.
They’re a good idea that got started in the early 1990s. They are regulated by the Paris Principles, a set of standards designed to ensure the NHRIs are properly independent and adequately funded. There is an accreditation body to rate NHRIs. Ratings of A or B mean NHRIs meet the standards in the Paris Principles, those that don’t meet the minimum standards are not recognized as NHRIs.
There are significant problems. First, not every country has an NHRI. Most countries in Africa, Europe, and Latin America have them, as do Canada and Australia.
But for all of the Biden administration’s talk about putting human rights at the center of its foreign policy, and of commitment to human rights at home, they refuse to create such a body. They follow all U.S. administrations in rejecting NHRIs since they were established, despite urging from Human Rights First and dozens of other leading U.S. voices on human rights.
The United States doesn’t have a strong record of joining mainstream international human rights standards. It has ratified some important treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), and the Convention Against Torture.
The U.S. position is that these treaties are not “self-executing:” they don’t have the force of law in the United States. U.S. residents can’t go to court to claim these rights because Congress hasn’t incorporated them into domestic law. Setting up an NHRI in the United States would be a big step towards making the safeguards in these treaties a reality for U.S. citizens.
Second, some NHRIs are fakes. While many NHRIs help protect human rights (my own country, Ireland, has a powerful one), some are fronts for repressive dictatorships.
This week, the NHRIs of Bahrain and Egypt — both authoritarian regimes, and both U.S. military allies — are up for review by the accrediting body. While Bahrain currently has a B status, and Egypt has an A, experts at the International Service for Human Rights note that neither Bahrain nor Egypt’s NHRIs actually meet the required standard.
All the current members of Bahrain’s NHRI were appointed by the king. The body’s Vice-Chairperson, Khaled Abdulaziz Alshaer, had previously called on those criticizing the Bahraini government to be executed. Bahrain’s human rights institute also denies abuses committed by the authorities, including arbitrary detention, ill-treatment, and medical negligence in various detention facilities. This contradicts the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention’s findings regarding Abduljalil al-Singace, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, and Naji Fateel, three Bahraini human rights defenders arbitrarily detained, tortured, medically neglected, and subjected to sham trials.
The Egyptian NHRI, called the Egyptian National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), also lacks independence from the government. Members of the NCHR appointed for four years in 2021 include the body’s Vice-President, Mahmoud Karem Mahmoud, who was the coordinator of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s presidential campaign. The NCHR has remained silent on enforced disappearances in Egypt and the abuse of prisoners.
These terrible records are widely known, a point I made as a speaker at an event last week on NHRIs organized by the Geneva-based MENA Rights Group. Yet both Bahrain and Egypt are likely to have their accreditations renewed. The accreditation system is another example of how the international human rights architecture isn’t working properly.
Scrapping NHRIs isn’t the answer, but reforming the system is. To start, the United States should create its own strong NHRI and argue for better standards. Only by submitting its own NHRI for accreditation will the United States have a compelling voice or credibility on this issue.