Parliaments & Human Rights

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Parliament is a guardian of Human Rights. By laying down laws, and ensuring that these are in compliance with international human rights standards, debating and approving the budget and overseeing the executive branch, the parliament covers the entire spectrum of political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights. It has, therefore, an immediate impact on the enjoyment of human rights by all people.

Parliament can promote and protect human rights by mainstreaming them in the laws it passes, which includes applying treaties and conventions on human rights their country is party to.

In particular, parliamentarians have an important role to play in:

  • supporting follow-up to Universal Periodic Review (UPR)[1] recommendations during plenary and committee debates in order to identify the ones which parliamentary action;
  • tasking committees whose area of competence is the object of UPR recommendations with formulating proposals on how to address them and ensuring those proposals are taken into account by the executive;
  • the national consultation process and in the preparation of the national report which is submitted to the Human Rights Council as part of the UPR process
  • participating in the analysis of the State’s challenges and achievements in the area of human rights and the identification of good practices in addressing specific problems from a human rights perspective.

 

Background information

Part V of the Millennium Declaration specifically commits governments to ‛spare no effort to promote democracy and strengthen the rule of law, as well as respect for all internationally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms…’ (See UNDP’s website: www.undp.org/governance/mdgs.htm) Parliaments have significant responsibility for promoting, protecting and realizing human rights through their functions of lawmaking, oversight and representation. Parliaments are directly relevant to a number of key human rights values and principles, such as universality and indivisibility, equality and non-discrimination, participation and the inclusion of vulnerable groups, accountability and the rule of law.

The UN General Assembly, in its resolutions 65/123 of 13 December 2010 and 66/261 of 29 May 2012, underscores the importance of cooperation and interaction in the area of human rights between the United Nations, in particular its Human Rights Council, national parliaments and the Inter-Parliamentary Union. 

On 6 June 2014, The Human Rights Council expressly affirmed (A/HRC/26/L.21) that States, in accordance with their national legislation, should “promote the involvement of parliaments in all stages of the universal periodic review reporting process,” including in the implementation of recommendations. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union “between 60 and 70 per cent of the recommendations made by UN mechanisms, including the UPR” concern Parliament.

The Human Rights Handbook for Parliamentarians, by OHCHR and Inter-Parliamentary Union, provides guidance on what parliamentarians may do in their role to ensure that international human rights provisions are incorporated into national law and, if possible, give constitutional status to the rights. Parliamentarians can ensure proposed legislation brought before parliament is consistent with the human rights obligations of the country, and to review existing legislation to determine whether it is aligned with those same obligations.

 

Human rights–based approach to parliamentary development

Parliaments’ human rights obligations: Individual legislators and parliaments as governance institutions have responsibilities and obligations to respect protect, promote and realize human rights principles and standards. They can do this through the legislative, oversight and representational functions as well as through parliamentary procedures and practices. Firstly and predominantly, parliament demonstrates its commitment to human rights by mainstreaming human rights aspects to all of the laws it passes, including the domestication of international treaties and conventions on human rights through their implementation by a legal framework. This can also be demonstrated through the monitoring of adherence to human rights laws. Parliaments can be active players in scrutinizing treaty reporting and the implementation by the executive of recommendations from treaty bodies. Investigating and monitoring allegations of human rights violations also underscore the obligations of legislators as duty-bearers.

Parliamentary work: Human rights standards contained in international human rights instruments guide national development and should be adhered to and utilized by parliaments and legislators in their day-to-day work. Technical cooperation for parliamentary development can and should support human rights standard-setting. This would include ensuring that human rights standards are applied nationally and internationally, particularly in relation to marginalized groups. This includes addressing gender equity and the rights of internally displaced persons, sexual and religious minorities, indigenous peoples, the disabled and the aged.

Parliamentary processes: Human rights holders refers to people as holders of rights that can be claimed through participation in parliamentary processes. The right to vote, the right to participate in public hearings, the ability of citizens and organizations to participate in the development of legislation and the role of the public in inputting to the national budget process all demonstrate how claim-holders can participate in parliamentary processes and thus actively assert their rights.

Parliamentarians themselves are also claim-holders. In countries where protection and promotion of human rights is limited, some of the only people who can actively use their rights are parliamentarians. Under such conditions, there is a risk that a parliamentarian who tries to enforce her rights may face persecution. In which case, the parliament must be empowered to promote and protect the rights of its members.

Parliaments in conflict-affected countries: Addressing issues of impunity and justice in post-conflict countries is one critical area where the application of human rights values, principles and standards can facilitate access to rights by claim-holders. Another example is during peace negotiation and peace-building processes (including post-conflict constitution-making or constitutional revision processes), where the rights of all parties in a conflict can be accommodated through the active participation of representatives from all societal groups.


[1] The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a unique process which involves a review of the human rights records of all UN Member States. The UPR is a State-driven process, under the auspices of the Human Rights Council, which provides the opportunity for each State to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries and to fulfill their human rights obligations. As one of the main features of the Council, the UPR is designed to ensure equal treatment for every country when their human rights situations are assessed.