Pacific Island Countries and Territories had good reason to celebrate as 2017 came to a close, with the region’s leaders showing a clear commitment to the advancement of human rights. In just 12 months, with support from the Pacific Community’s Regional Rights Resource Division and its partners, the number of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs), either established or under development in the Pacific, has more than doubled. Tuvalu, Nauru, Federated States of Micronesia, Cook Islands and the Republic of the Marshall Islands have joined Australia, Fiji, New Zealand and Samoa in strengthening their institutional environment in this way to ensure that Human Rights remain a top priority for the Pacific.
The additional five countries progressing towards creating NHRIs are being supported by a three-way partnership between the Pacific Community’s (SPC) Regional Rights Resource Team (RRRT), the Asia Pacific Forum for National Human Rights Institutions (APF) and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Of the five countries, Tuvalu was able to progress the furthest, with legislation drafted and passed to institute an NHRI in 2017.
The four other countries (Nauru, FSM, Cook Islands and RMI) hosted NHRI scoping missions led by RRRT and supported by APF and, in the case of the Cook Islands, OHCHR and UNDP. RRRT Acting Director Nicol Cave sees 2017 as a landmark year. “This is has been an exciting year in the Pacific with Governments visibly strengthening their commitments to human rights. I am confident that this trend will continue and all of us in RRRT will continue to support Pacific governments in these endeavours.”
What is so important about NHRIs?
NHRIs are specialised bodies established by governments, but intended to provide an independent assessment of the nation’s duty to protect and promote the human rights of its people, including vulnerable groups.
NHRIs provide an essential role in the human rights ‘machinery’ of any country. While governments are responsible for the protection and promotion of human rights in their States, NHRIs support governments to this end by advising governments, monitoring human rights standards and practices, investigating violations, and promoting human rights education and training. NHRIs also play a critical role in bringing commitments made at the national and international levels, including UN treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), to bear on people’s lives.
NHRIs have existed since the 1940s but did not have any internationally agreed standards until 1991. These international standards, known as the ‘Paris Principles’, include ensuring the independence, plurality and mandate of NHRIs.
Around the world, NHRIs have played important roles in exposing and identifying steps to address human rights abuses. For example, the NHRI in Samoa (Ombudsman’s office) has undertaken a major survey on the impact of human rights on fa’a Samoa, or Samoan way of life and culture, reported on the rights of people with disabilities with strong recommendations to government and the wider society, and is currently undertaking a major public inquiry into domestic violence. The New Zealand Human Rights Commission recently has exposed abuse and neglect associated with those living with mental illness in residential institutions, and launched an award-winning media campaign on racism.
Turning the tide in the Pacific
The work on creating national human rights institutions had been stagnant for many years in the Pacific region. Until recently, the conversation around human rights institutions focused on a regional mechanism, though this too was not a regional priority. Issues of resources, capacity and national priorities were some of the reasons why it was not feasible for Pacific Island governments to pursue NHRIs at the time.
This trend turned in 2016 in Tuvalu when, following a national consultation of Members of Parliament (MPs) held by RRRT, Cabinet endorsed a recommendation for a scoping mission on an NHRI. On the invitation of the Attorney General of Tuvalu, RRRT and APF held consultations in Funafuti in December 2016 on the feasibility of establishing an NHRI. Government representatives and key stakeholders, who recognised the importance of contextualising human rights within Tuvalu’s culture and island society, and assistance in mediating human rights disputes and conflicts, supported an NHRI for Tuvalu. Based on the consultations and considering resource challenges, the scoping team recommended for the establishment of an NHRI within the existing independent Office of the Ombudsman. The scoping team also advised that the appointment of human rights commissioners should take into consideration gender and the plurality of Tuvaluan society.
These recommendations were accepted by the Government and with technical support from RRRT and the APF, the Government created legislation to establish the NHRI. The Tuvalu Parliament passed this legislation in October 2017, making Tuvalu one of only a few Small Island Developing States to establish an NHRI.
“We were delighted to see the legislation passed with such a powerful endorsement from the Parliament,” said Kieren Fitzpatrick, Director of the APF secretariat. “It meant that Tuvalu’s new NHRI would have strong foundation to respond to the concerns of the community and provide redress for people who experience discrimination or human rights violations.”
Political leadership was key to the speed of these actions. His Excellency Sir Iakoba Italeli, the Governor General of Tuvalu, during his engagement with the NHRI scoping mission, stated that even though there may be a lack of resources and capacity, “it must not be the reason to stop Tuvalu from progressing on the initiative of establishing an NHRI.”
Trust and technical expertise from both RRRT and APF were also essential factors. RRRT’s grounded understanding of the Pacific and relationships and respect in Tuvalu helped build a political appetite for the MPs consultation and scoping mission. APF, as the regional forum of NHRIs, carried the technical expertise to consider the specific form and function of NHRI most appropriate to the country.
Expansion through the peer-to-peer network
As a regional human rights programme with national staff based in nine countries and networks spreading across the region, RRRT supported other countries to build on the momentum generated by Tuvalu. Following their attendance at RRRT’s regional workshops and through the technical support offered by RRRT’s Country Focal Officers for the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) and the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), these Northern Pacific States governments issued requests to RRRT for a scoping study on the feasibility of establishing an NHRI. In Nauru, following a RRRT consultation with MPs, a request for scoping study was issued to RRRT by the Ministry for Home Affairs, and in Cook Islands, the request came from OHCHR. RRRT worked in close partnership with APF on the missions in RMI, FSM and Nauru; and APF, OHCHR and UNDP on the scoping mission to the Cook Islands, with funding from the Australian Government and the European Union. Reports with specific recommendations are currently sitting with the governments of each of these countries.
Cook Islands’ Acting Secretary of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Paul Allsworth, expressed his gratitude to the team for their service and said that the mission would assist the Cook Islands with “streamlining our core services under international standards”. He noted that the Ministry was responsible for coordinating the country’s reports to the United Nations treaty bodies for those treaties ratified by the Cook Islands.
RMI’s Secretary of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Wallace Peter, expressed his appreciation towards the scoping team for “providing such a vital report of their scoping mission to RMI”.
An increase in Pacific governments’ commitment to international human rights standards has been an important part of regional progress on NHRIs. The governments of FSM, RMI, Nauru and Tuvalu acknowledged that the feasibility study and national discussion on an NHRI stems from their own international commitments, including the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) and Treaty reporting processes.
Rosslyn Noonan, a former Chief Commissioner for Human Rights in the New Zealand Human Rights Commission and member of the scoping team, noted that it had been tremendously encouraging to witness how concerned the governments involved in the scoping studies have been about strengthening the human rights of their people.
RRRT and partners are committed to supporting the establishment of an NHRI in each of the countries that had scoping studies. The support available includes further consultations, for example in outer islands, assisting with the drafting of enabling legislation, linking in other agencies such as UNDP to help source additional resources; and providing technical assistance and capacity building once the NHRI is established. RRRT and APF will continue to support the governments through their status accreditation with the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI) in Geneva, Switzerland. NHRIs that meet the international minimum standards as set by the Paris Principles are given a global status, with A being the highest and a C status meaning a non-compliant institution. In 2016, 75 NHRIs received an A rating status, including Australia, New Zealand and Samoa’s NHRI.
Effective, independent NHRIs in countries across the Pacific will help governments to implement better their human rights commitments at a time when the adverse impact of climate change risk eroding human rights gains. At the end of the day, these institutions are an essential component of building an enabling environment where Pacific Island citizens receive protection and support to enjoy their rights and reach their potential.