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CENTRAL RESPONSIBILITY FOR PROTECTING HUMAN RIGHTS RESTS WITH GOVERNMENT AND ITS AGENTS

NOVEMBER 10, 2014 By: Bankole Clifford Ekundayo Morgan, Human Rights Advocate

In principle, when a country signs to uphold and respect human rights, the central responsibility for protecting these rights purely rests with the Government and its agents. Governments have the primary responsibility to ensure that fundamental rights and freedoms of all its citizens are jealously guarded. Also, for the full enjoyment of human rights, duty-bearers must ensure that they adopt and utilize the rights-based approach in the execution of their duties.

STATES HAVE THE RESPONSIBILITY TO RESPECT, PROTECT & FULFIL HUMAN RIGHTS

State parties, by signing and ratifying human rights documents, must at national level commit themselves to respect, protect and fulfil human rights.

To respect human rights means that the State cannot take any action or impose any measure that is contrary to the rights guaranteed by the human rights documents signed.

To protect human rights means that the State must take positive action to ensure that an indi­vidual is not denied his or her Civil and Political, and Economic, Social and Cultural rights. Mechanisms through which human rights are protected must be put in national agenda. The national agenda should be inclusive of adequate legislation, an independent judiciary, the en­actment and enforcement of individual safeguards and remedies, and the establishment of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) and other democratic institutions to serve as agents of state. The responsibility to fulfil human rights requires a State to take positive steps beyond mere prevention. This might, for example, go beyond the enactment of laws to promoting human rights through national education and information campaigns.

In accordance with international human rights law, when States ratify a human rights instrument, that State has the primary responsibility to ensure that the rights contained in that treaty or convention become part of or are recognized by the national legal system. It is unconditional that States are required to take “all ap­propriate steps”, including but not only legislative steps, to ensure that rights are realized at the State level. These steps include “effective national implementation” and this has generated much international interest and action.

Agents of state established to ensure these tenets of human rights are adhered to must be supported and strengthened to effectively carry out their functions and it is government’s responsibility to do so.  In Sierra Leone, such agents include institutions like the National Commission for Democracy, the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone, the Law Reform Commission and the Office of the Ombudsman.

VIOLATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS OCCURS WHEN A STATE ACTS OR FAILS TO ACT…

The state has obligations to respect, protect, and fulfill provisions of human rights instruments they have signed. When a state refuses to perform its obligation to respect, protect and fulfill human rights, it may degenerate into violating the rights of its citizen. The application of these minimum core obligations to ensure the satisfaction of all rights is incumbent upon every state party.

A violation of a human right therefore occurs when a state acts, or fails to act, in conformity with its obligation to respect, protect or fulfil recognised human rights of persons under its jurisdiction. To asses a given state’s behaviour in practice, however, it is necessary to determine in addition what specific conduct is required of the state in relation to each right. This will depend on the terms of the state’s human rights obligations, as well as their interpretation and application; and this in turn should take into account the object and purpose of each obligation and the facts of each case. The term “violation” should only be used formally when a legal obligation exists and is not complied with. In essence when a state has signed any human rights documents that state has a duty to abstain from acts that deny the integrity of the individuals or infringe on his/her human rights.

COMPETENCE AND RESPONSIBILITIES OF NATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS INSTITUTIONS (NHRIs)

National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) occupy a unique position with an effective strategy to fully implementing the Paris Principle which is the guiding document for all NHRIs. NHRIs should assist its government to ensure that rights are protected, respected and fulfilled in line with international norms and standards. It would therefore be dishearten to see any NHRI condescending low by compromising it mandates and not maintaining its human rights grading/ranking which is reviewed every four years by the International Coordinating Committee (ICC).

The Paris Principles requires that every NHRI submit to its Government, Parliament and any other competent body, a report called “State of Human Rights Report”. This report should catalogue challenges and recommendations of any situation of violation of human rights which it decides to take up, draw the attention of the government to situations in any part of the country where human rights are violated and making proposals to it for initiatives to put an end to such situations and where necessary, expressing an opinion to the positions and reactions of the government. One other primary functions of any NHRI is to ensure the harmonization of national legislation, regulations and practices with the international instruments to which the State is Party and their effective implementation.

STRENGTHENING NATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS INSTITUTIONs (NHRIs)

The United Nations has been extensively involved in establishing and strengthening National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs). Setting up effective NHRIs has always been the priority for Office of the High Commission of Human Rights (OHCHR) as well as for other parts of the United Nations sys­tem, such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).  The emergence or re-emergence of democratic rule in many countries has focused attention on the importance of democratic institutions like National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) as one of the key factors in implementing international obligations. But I wonder how many NHRIs are energetic and fully effective in meeting this demand.

SIERRA LEONE’S NHRI – THE HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION OF SIERRA LEONE (HRCSL)

The Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone was set up through an Act of Parliament (Act No. 9 of 2004) but became fully operational in 2008. I am a living witness to the testimony of the UN in setting up and strengthening the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone through the UNDP. I was among the first set of staff of the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone in April, 2008 and in May, 2008 I was appointed as the first Regional Human Rights Officer Western Area, this position I held unto 2013.

Commissioners as well as staff received lots of capacity building through trainings on human rights treaties both in and outside Sierra Leone. It was due to these training and the dedication to the work of the first set of Commissioners and staff that the Commission conducted its first ever Public Inquire in 2011 which was very successful as all the recommendations proffered by the Commission were met by the respondent. Collectively we were also able to earn the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone (HRCSL) a Grade “A” status, by the International Coordinating Committee (ICC) in 2011. This was a huge success for a newly established Human Rights Commission. I personally salute and say “Bravo” to the first set of Commissioners and staff who worked very hard to bring this honour to our beloved country. I hope the presently constituted Commission will maintain the hard won “A” status when the Commission comes under review next year (2015).

CIVIL SOCIETY ORGANIZATIONS & THE MEDIA IN FOSTERING GOOD GOVERNANCE

I have observed that some governments underestimate the role played by non-governmental bodies in the day-to-day running of a state. Non-governmental bodies are all those entities including civil society, the media, inter-religious council and community service orga­nizations that are not part of government but are very key players in constructive development.

Civil society organizations and the Media (print & electronic) especially have a special role to play in fostering good governance, democracy, rule of law and human rights. This has been demonstrated by only a few civil society organizations and media houses which due to integrity deliberately refused to condescend to the will of selfish politicians. Their dedication in the work they do has earned them their independence, as they often speak out and act more freely, objectively and constructively – acts viewed as the cornerstones for good governance, democracy, rule of law and human rights. On the other hand a good number of civil society organizations and media houses (print & electronic) have lost focus and wallowed in their integrity. What a big shame and a selfish service to “Mama Salone”.

In conclusion, may I remind governments all over the world that for a country which has signed to uphold and respect for human rights, the central responsibility for protecting human rights purely rests with its Government. Globally, States have an obligation under international human rights law to respect the promotion and protection of human rights. It is implied that state must share responsibility for human rights violation when it knows or ought to know about violations of human rights and fails to take appropriate steps to prevent them or fails to investigate and punish the perpetrators. It is unconditional that the responsibility to respect, protect and fulfil human rights requires that states take pro active steps to ensure that individuals and communities fully enjoy their human rights.

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