– By Joses Kuan, Research and Advocacy Officer, Burma Partnership –
The Asian NGOs Network on National Human Rights Institutions (ANNI) was established in December 2006. It is a network of Asian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and human rights defenders (HRDs) that advocate for the strengthening of Asian National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) such that they are able to better promote and protect human rights. ANNI also advocates for the improved compliance of Asian NHRIs both in law and practice with international standards, including the Paris Principles and General Observations of the Sub- Committee on Accreditation (SCA) of the International Coordinating Committee of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (ICC). ANNI, at the time of writing, has 30 member organisations from 17 countries or territories. The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) functions as the Secretariat of ANNI.
National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) in Asia
As Asian NHRIs were still relatively new inventions that mostly emerged in the late 1990s to 2000s, ANNI was established to advocate for their independence as well as higher levels of accountability and effectiveness of NHRIs. This was particularly important as many Asian countries were just embarking on their democratic transitions, and HRDs welcomed an ally that had the potential to contribute significantly to human rights protection and governance on the ground.
Today, the network continues to equip and reinvigorate itself in response to the varied challenges that impede the work and functioning of Asian NHRIs. Through the formulation of advocacy strategies and action points, NHRIs are consistently monitored and assessed by Asian civil society groups with regular and sustained calls for improvement by Asian Governments and NHRIs.
The annual ANNI report
A major advocacy strategy is the publication of the annual ANNI Report on the Performance and Establishment of NHRIs in Asia. It is an assessment of Paris Principles compliance of Asian NHRIs both in law and practice, as well as an inquiry into their effectiveness and impact.
Some of the notable achievements as a result of ANNI’s NHRI advocacy include the Human Rights Commission (HRC) of the Maldives’ instrumental role in the passage of the Anti-Torture Act (2014) and Suruhanjaya Hak Asasi Manusia’s (SUHAKAM’s – the National Human Rights Commission of Malaysia’s) landmark national inquiries into rights abuses and violations relating to freedom of peaceful assembly and indigenous peoples’ land rights, and even joint campaigns with civil society organisations (CSOs) for the Government’s accession to the Convention Against Torture. In Mongolia, the NHRC has established the practice of having ex-officio civil society representatives on the body to inform and steer the commission’s priority areas, as well as assist in planning, designing and implementing its activities.
Challenges for NHRIs
Increasingly, it has become apparent that many NHRIs operate in hostile environments that impede their ability to fulfil their mandate. This is reflected in the recent intensification of reprisals, attacks and harassment against NHRIs, and range from trumped up charges filed against NHRI members for duly discharging their roles and mandates, to physical summons and harassment before authorities.
The work of the ANNI network has evolved to also reflect contemporary challenges confronting NHRIs. These include advocating for legislative oversight of NHRIs to ensure public accountability and to prevent attacks, as well as promoting an enabling environment for them to operate in.
Establishing independent and effective NHRIs
Another main thrust of ANNI’s work is advocating for the establishment of independent and effective NHRIs. This is particularly significant when other domestic protection and accountability mechanisms remain weak or inadequate. Such campaigns are nationally-driven and member-led, with ANNI members facilitating the formation of coalitions and networks to develop a systematic and long-term plan of action to advocate for the establishment of NHRIs.
However, the reality is that NHRIs in non-democratic or transitional States are often used as smokescreens to deflect attention and scrutiny of the country’s human rights record. Hence, the establishment of an NHRI should not be conflated with greater respect for human rights by the State. So, while their creation may arguably open up an official space for a human rights discourse, the institutional legitimacy of NHRIs is ultimately tested through their performance, and in particular, their impact or ability to render justice to victims of violations and abuses.
Even repressive States like Cambodia have recently accepted the recommendation to establish an NHRI with no reservations. This makes the work of ANNI more critical and significant as it involves heightened vigilance, scrutiny and advocacy to prevent the creation of ‘alibi institutions’ to legitimise the State and deflect criticism of it.
Regional and international advocacy
ANNI’s engagement with the Asia Pacific Forum on National Human Rights Institutions (APF) started with the intention to advocate for fully Paris Principles-compliant NHRIs in the region. As relatively new creations, it was critical to ensure that these institutions remained independent, effective and accountable so that they could meaningfully contribute to human rights protection and governance at the national level.
Furthermore, in those regions in Asia where there were no (sub) regional mechanisms, such as the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), the development of regional standards and jurisprudence through the APF’s Advisory Council of Jurists (ACJ) References, on a variety of prevalent and critical human rights issues, was particularly valuable for civil society and NHRIs alike.
Since the early days in 2006, when civil society representatives were restricted to observer status at APF meetings, the relationship between ANNI and APF has evolved to a more robust, collaborative and sustainable partnership. In recent years, an ANNI-APF dialogue mechanism has been institutionalised in the context of the APF’s annual business meetings, providing an opportunity for frank and constructive discussions on issues of mutual concern as well as to strategise plans and actions. These include NHRI-civil society relationships and forms of cooperation, NHRIs’ role for HRDs, and even making substantial inputs to the APF’s Strategic Plans through written and oral submissions.
In recent times, ANNI and the APF have also collaborated on critical, urgent issues such as NHRIs ‘in crisis’ or ‘at risk’. Examples such as the judicial harassment of HRC Maldives members and potential dissolution of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of Thailand readily come to mind. Such joint advocacy actions ensure that the unique strengths of each network are mobilised efficiently and advocacy efforts are amplified.
ANNI’s visibility and credibility has also been firmly established in other international human rights bodies, such as the accreditation review of NHRIs administered by the ICC. The submission of timely and quality stakeholder reports, as well as frequent updates and information-sharing, is largely enabled by sustained scrutiny on the ground by ANNI members and the close working relationship with the Secretariat.
Towards the future
Public expectations of NHRIs exist because their creation suggests an institutional approach to addressing and tackling violations domestically. After all, they are the only state-formed organ tasked exclusively to promote and protect human rights. ANNI will continue to do all it can to make NHRIs fully realise those expectations.
Joses Kuan, Research and Advocacy Officer, Burma Partnership:
Joses Kuan works for the Burma Partnership (BP) based in Mae Sot, Thailand. Before joining BP, he was the National Human Rights Institutions Programme Officer at FORUM-ASIA.