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  • Sri Lanka’s New Human Rights Commission
  • Mario Gomez (bio)

I. Introduction

A human rights commission is a state sponsored and state funded entity set up under an act of parliament or under the constitution, with the broad objective of protecting and promoting human rights. With this overall objective in mind, a human rights commission may perform a range of functions. These functions include dispute resolution through adjudication or mediation, human rights education, documentation and research, advising governments on human rights issues, and setting human rights standards.

Responding to a burgeoning interest in national institutions, the Sri Lankan Parliament passed legislation in July 1996, establishing a new and permanent Human Rights Commission (HRC) for the country. 1 The legislation sets up a unique institution and marks an important milestone for the protection and promotion of human rights in Sri Lanka. The Human Rights Commission Act contemplates an institution that performs a broad range of functions, from investigating and mediating human rights violations to advising the government on appropriate legislative and administrative procedures. 2 The president of Sri Lanka appointed the five-member HRC in March 1997, seven months after the enactment of the Human Rights Commission Act. 3 Unfortunately there are no women among the five members, and only one of the members has previous direct involvement in [End Page 281] human rights work. 4 This article will examine some of the tasks and priorities before the HRC, as envisaged in the legislation.

A. Human Rights Commissions

National and local human rights commissions have been established in several parts of the world. The first human rights commission was set up in Saskatchewan in 1947 and since then several countries have established similar commissions. In some other parts of the world the institution of the Ombudsman has been vested with a human rights jurisdiction. 5

Human rights commissions gained prominence after the United Nations began to actively promote the concept. This active promotion began in 1991 when the Centre for Human Rights in Geneva organized a consultation on national human rights institutions. One of the results of this meeting was a statement of principles entitled “Principles Relating to the Status and Functioning of National Institutions for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights” (Paris Principles). 6 The Paris Principles were subsequently endorsed by both the Commission on Human Rights (1992), 7 and the Vienna Conference in 1993. 8 Since then several meetings on these national [End Page 282] institutions have been convened by the Centre for Human Rights and in 1995 the Centre published a handbook on national institutions. 9

The Commonwealth has also actively supported the concept and promoted meetings on the subject of developing human rights commissions. 10 One of the more recent meetings was convened in Darwin, Australia in July 1996 and resulted in the Larrakia Declaration. 11 Another consequence of the Darwin workshop was the decision to establish the Asian Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions (Forum). The functions of the Forum are set out in the Larrakia Declaration. 12 The most recent meeting of the Forum was held in New Delhi, India in October 1997.

The Paris Principles emphasize that human rights commissions should operate independently of government and have the necessary resources and infrastructure to function effectively. 13 The Paris Principles also draw attention to the flexibility of human rights commissions and state that the members of these commissions should be drawn from different segments of society. 14

Some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), among them Amnesty International, have also issued guidelines on human rights commissions. 15 The Amnesty standards emphasize that while human rights commissions can be an important mechanism for the protection of human rights, they can never replace, and should not in any way diminish, the legal structures enforced by an independent and impartial judiciary. 16 One potential problem to be wary of and to guard against is that for many governments, human rights commissions have the potential to become a cosmetic exercise, aimed at boosting that government’s human rights image in the eyes of the global community. 17 [End Page 283]

B. Background to Sri Lanka’s Legislation

A human rights commission had been in Sri Lanka’s institutional pipeline for...

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