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Parliaments and parliamentarians – a significant role in the promotion and protection of human rights

20 March 2017
Co-authored by Karen McKenzie, Head of Human Rights and Justin Pettit, Human Rights Officer, Commonwealth Secretariat

It is well-known that parliamentarians have a special role in the promotion and protection of human rights, a responsibility which they share with the executive and the judiciary.

In spite of this shared responsibility in the area of human rights, and owing to its primary role in law-making, parliament is the branch of government best placed to give effect to human rights, take practical measures to prevent abuses, and to ensure that law provides practical means through which remedies may be sought for alleged violations. To this end, parliamentarians may influence policies and budgets at the national level, monitor policy implementation programmes at local levels, address the needs and concerns of their constituencies, and act as a catalyst in the realisation of human rights domestically and internationally.

Globally there is a concerted push to harness these unique roles for the greater good of protecting the human dignity and human rights of people, as parliamentarians’ potential contribution is currently under-realised. For instance, under the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review mechanism, parliamentarians may be regarded as key stakeholders.  However, their role is not formalised within the process, let alone elaborated in a meaningful way. Yet between 60% and 70% of recommendations stemming from the Review require legislative action.

The Commonwealth has steadily been adding its voice as we participate in global efforts to remedy such shortcomings and increase the contribution of parliamentarians in the protection of human rights. Together with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, we have been developing the ability of parliamentarians to promote and protect human rights nationally and on a regional basis. The  outcomes have included a commitment to regional declarations (Mahé Declaration in Africa; Pipitea Declaration in the Pacific; Kotte Declaration in Asia).  A further outcome was the establishment of regional Commonwealth parliamentary human rights groups which are giving practical effect to the commitments made. These include:

  • to establish parliamentary committees or caucuses with express responsibility for human rights and fundamental freedoms
  • to ensure that human rights norms and principles are reflected in new laws  
  • to strengthen the protection of human rights through the effective use of parliamentary tools such as parliamentary questions, motions, financial oversight and budget allocations
  • to promote the establishment of Paris Principles-compliant national human rights institutions and the need to strengthen the independence, functioning and sustainability of existing ones
  • to encourage dialogue and promote the exchange of information and experience on salient human rights issues and challenges regionally, including equality and non-discrimination, climate change, freedom of religion or belief, and violence against women and children.

The commitments made in the Mahé Declaration encouraged a Kenyan parliamentarian and member of the Commonwealth Africa Parliamentary Human Rights Group to establish a cross party caucus of parliamentarians committed to the promotion and protection of human rights. It was officially registered under the Societies Act in 2014 and is recognised by both houses of parliament. The Kenya Parliamentary Human Rights Association (KEPHRA), or the ‘human rights caucus’ as it is commonly known, has active members from six political parties representing over 20 committees in both the National Assembly and the Senate. The caucus aims to affirm and protect the universal values of human rights, truth, peace and social justice, human dignity and integrity in the context of Kenya’s cultural and historical background. It focuses on developing parliamentary tools to oversee state compliance with human rights obligations and accountability for violations.

Recently, the Kenya parliamentary human rights caucus partnered with the Kenyan National Commission for Human Rights (KNCHR) by signing a memorandum of understanding to ensure the promotion and protection of human rights. Recognising the important roles of national human rights institutions and parliamentarians in this way, the KEPHRA and the KNCHR adopted an action plan for 2016/2017. An important area of focus is to ensure effective financial and human resource allocation for the recently adopted Kenyan National Human Rights Policy and Action Plan. KEPHRA has also established formal partnerships with UN Women and the High Commissioner for Refugees. Members of the human rights caucus have also been active in proposing legislation to enhance the enjoyment of rights in Kenya. One such example is the Prevention of Torture Bill 2016, which was drafted and introduced by the convenor of the human rights caucus. The Bill had its second reading before parliament in early December.

Parliamentary committees are a key tool available to advance the protection of human rights at the national level. Being able to develop and express common parliamentary positions on human rights issues and to contribute to meaningful legislation, as the Kenyan human rights caucus has, demonstrates their value.

The Secretariat has been supporting the work of Commonwealth parliamentary human rights champions including on their relationship with national human rights institutions; child marriage; migration; equality and non-discrimination.

The establishment of the Kenyan human rights caucus is just one in a wider set of encouraging global developments. Some of these developments, including the Kenyan human right caucus, were profiled during a side event held at the UN Human Rights Council on 15 March. The event, titled ‘Increasing parliamentary engagement with human rights and the rule of law’ was organised by the Commonwealth Secretariat Human Rights Unit in collaboration with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, and the Faculty of Law at the University of Oxford. The side event was in follow up to the June 2016 Human Rights Council panel discussion taking stock of the contribution of parliaments to the work of the Council and its Universal Periodic Review (UPR). We shared the results of our ongoing work with parliamentarians while the other panellists discussed how parliamentarians can increase their contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights and how national parliaments can increase their contribution to the work of the Human Rights Council and the UPR, including through institutional measures.

Although there has been clear progress in enhancing the role of parliamentarians in promoting and protecting human rights, much still remains to be done to fully realise their contribution to the work of the Human Rights Council and the broader protection of human rights. Through our partnerships with Commonwealth organisations, the UN, international civil society organisations, national parliaments and human rights institutions, we continue our efforts to enhance parliamentarians’ capacity to engage with human rights more firmly in their day-to-day business and to improve parliamentary processes and tools to advance the full enjoyment of all human rights by all Commonwealth citizens.