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Conducting National Inquiries at international standards


24 July 2013 06:21 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Over the past 20 years, national human rights institutions in the Asia region have pioneered the use of national inquiries as a way to investigate and respond to a range of complex, systemic human rights issues. In Sri Lanka a national Inquiry has not conducted up to date but preparing for the first ever national Inquiry in the near future.

What is a national Inquiry
National inquiries are one of the most effective strategies available to national human rights institutions for investigating and drawing attention to pressing human rights issues. It is the latest mechanism of assessing human rights in a country. A National Inquiry is an investigation into a systemic human rights problem in which the general public is invited to participate. National Inquiries are conducted in a transparent, public manner. They involve investigation-conducted in a public forum and evidence is provided directly by victims, experts and possibly perpetrators. National inquiries deal with large situations rather than individual complaints. It has high educational value. It introduces, exposes and explains a complex situation to the broad community, offering an analysis based in human rights law and providing recommendations. Inquiry recommendations seek to help governments uphold obligations under international human rights standards and create positive change.

"First, through a national inquiry, a large number of individual complaints can be dealt with in a proactive and cost-effective way – including cases of individuals who for various reasons, including disability, isolation or ignorance of the Human Right’s Commission mandate or even its existence, would not have been able to approach the institution for assistance"

Why hold a National Inquiry
Professor Brian Burdekin, who pioneered the national inquiry process when he was Human Rights Commissioner in Australia, lists the following reasons to conduct a national inquiry
First, through a national inquiry, a large number of individual complaints can be dealt with in a proactive and cost-effective way – including cases of individuals who for various reasons, including disability, isolation or ignorance of the Human Rights Commission mandate or even its existence, would not have been able to approach the institution for assistance.
Second, the process of preparing terms of reference for the inquiry should be conducted in consultation with NGO’s and others representing, or advocating on behalf of, affected individuals. This process has a dual benefit – in enhancing NGO’s understanding NHRI’s role and in enabling the institution to better inform itself by consultations with those in the community directly involved in the relevant issues.
Third, conducting public hearings open to the media is an extremely cost-effective way of educating both the general public about the institution and its responsibilities and also informing particular groups within the community who have specific responsibilities for the issues being investigated and their human rights implications.

Fourth, a national inquiry can most effectively address systemic violations of human rights – based on the evidence from individual cases, but also embracing an examination of the laws, policies and programmes which have given rise to the violations in question.
Fifth, since such inquiries afford opportunities to politicians, bureaucrats and other independent agencies, to present their views in submissions or at hearings, this strategy enables the NHRI to strengthen its cooperation with other important “institutions”.
What is the Procedure of
Conducting a national inquiry?

There are 14 steps in the National Inquiry

1. Choose the issue
2. Prepare a background or scoping paper
3. Identify, consult and engage stakeholders
4. Draft objectives and terms of reference
5. Appoint inquiry panel and staff
6. Gather other resources
7. Finalize an inquiry plan
8. Obtain information: research and evidence
9. Conduct public hearings
10. Develop recommendations
11. Prepare the report
12. Release the report
13. Follow-up
14. Evaluations.

Indian and Australian experience
The Indian NHRC conducted a national inquiry into the right to food in stages over several years from 1996, investigating, reporting and monitoring over a ten year period. In a later stage of the inquiry, it appointed a Special Rapporteur, Sri ChamanLal, to assist it in the work. The Special Rapporteur, on behalf ofthe NHRC, both undertook direct investigations and convened public hearings. In the national inquiry into the right to health care in 2003–04, the NHRC collaborated with Jan Swasthya Abhiyan (JSA), the People’s HealthMovement, a coalition of 1000 health sector NGOs in India. JSA was an equal partner with the NHRC in the inquiry.

The Australian Human Rights Commission’s (then known as the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission) National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention was announced on 28 November 2001. The Inquiry was conducted throughout 2002. It received over 340 submissions and visited all immigration detention centres in Australia.Public hearings were conducted in VIC, WA, SA, NSW and QLD. The Inquiry also conducted confidential focus groups with former detainee children and young people in Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide, Sydney and Brisbane.

UNHRC Resolution and National Inquiry
The UN Human Rights Council has passed a resolution calling on Sri Lanka to investigate alleged human rights violations.The resolution, sponsored by the US and co-sponsored by 40 other nations, was passed by 25 votes to 13, with 8 abstentions.The resolution calls on Sri Lanka to implement its own recommendations in addressing allegations of violations of international law. Conducting a national inquiry will certainly upgrade the Sri Lanka human rights standards and extend cooperation to other countries in March 2014 UNHRC sessions. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights will undertake a visit to Sri Lanka in August 2013. Last week,UK foreign and Commonwealth Office alsoraisedtheir concernsover current human rights situation in Sri Lanka. That means most of the countries are vigilant about positive developments of human rights in this country.
Human Rights issues arising from the conflict (LLRC Report)
The LLRC report is the first home-grown post-conflict national report, which came out through a process of consultations and based on submissions made to it by a cross-section of individuals and institutions who were directly or indirectly affected by the former conflict.The Commission considers that its recommendations on these human rights issues are critically relevant to the process of reconciliation. Hundreds of persons who appeared before the Commission clearly articulated the critical importance of re-dedicating ourselves to the task of promoting and protecting human rights as a catalyst for bringing about reconciliation, lasting peace and security.
Chapter 5 of the LLRC report highlights various human rights issues which can lead to a national inquiry in Sri Lanka. These issues are;

Freedom of Torture and degrading punishment
  • Freedom of expression and the right to information
  • Internally Displaced Persons
  • Vulnerable Groups – women, children and the elderly
  • Illegal armed groups
  • Treatment of detainees  
  • Conscription of children
  • Disabled Persons
  • Muslim community in the North and East
  • Freedom of religion, association and movement
Follow up action on past Commissions of Inquiry
In its consideration of these issues, it took into account the principles of human rights law as contained in the core international human rights instruments and other international obligations that Sri Lanka has undertaken since independence, as well as relevant provisions of the Constitution and other laws.

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