A national human rights institution (NHRI) is an autonomous body established by the State, with a constitutional or legislative mandate to promote and protect human rights. NHRIs are intended to bridge the ‘protection gap’ between the rights of individuals and the duties and responsibilities of the State. The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (1993) recommended the establishment of NHRIs on the basis of the UN Principles Relating to the Status and Functioning of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (1991) (The Paris Principles). According to The Paris Principles, NHRIs should:
- have a broad mandate based on universal human rights standards; be autonomous and independent from government;
- have a pluralistic structure and operate in a pluralistic manner; have adequate resources; and
- have adequate powers of investigation.
NHRIs are brought together under the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI), previously known as the International Coordinating Committee of NHRIs (ICC). Under this Global Alliance a thematic GANHRI Working Group on Business and Human Rights (GANHRI Working Group) was established in 2009. The purpose of the GANHRI Working Group is to promote capacity building, strategic collaboration, advocacy and outreach by NHRIs in the area of business and human rights. The 10th Biennial GANHRI Conference in 2010 focused specifically on NHRIs, business and human rights, and resulted in the adoption of the Edinburgh Declaration. This considers ways that NHRIs can engage with business and human rights issues, including by promoting:
- greater protection against business-related human rights abuses;
- greater business accountability and respect for human rights;
- access to justice; and
- the establishment of multi-stakeholder approaches.
The UN Guiding Principles recognise the important role of NHRIs under each of its three pillars – protect, respect and remedy, with regard to business and human rights. For example, Commentary to Guiding Principles 3 states that: “National human rights institutions that comply with the Paris Principles have an important role to play in helping States identify whether relevant laws are aligned with their human rights obligations and are being effectively enforced, and in providing guidance on human rights also to business enterprises and other non-State actors.”
The UN Human Rights Council, UN Working Group on Business, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as well as regional bodies such as the Council of Europe have also noted the important role played by NHRIs in monitoring States’ obligations with regard to business and human rights. NHRIs have been urged to continue and enhance the dissemination and implementation of the UN Guiding Principles though means such as capacity-building of relevant national actors, promoting multi-stakeholder dialogue and initiatives at the national level, and identifying any gaps or challenges towards implementation. (UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights). Many NHRIs worldwide are playing a critical role in the development of National Actions plans on business and human righs, for example in Germany, Kenya, Scotland etc. NHRIs, such as the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission are also engaged in public procurement.
Another important function carried out by NHRIs in the context of business and human rights is the provision of non-judicial grievance mechanisms. The UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution in 2016 calling for improved accountability and access to remedy in the context of business and human rights abuse, while recognising the important role of NHRIs in achieving this objective. Some NHRIs such as the National Human Rights Commission of Indonesia (Komnas HAM), Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines, the South African Human Rights Commission or the Office of the Public Defender in Peru (Defensoría del Pueblo) have all interpreted that their mandates empower them to investigate business-related human rights abuse allegations. In carrying out this function, NHRIs may assume the role of an impartial mediator to facilitate dialogue between the parties. With respect to remediation, some NHRIs, such as the National Human Rights Commission in Nigeria, have the power to make legally binding resolutions at the conclusion of a dispute. Alternatively, NHRIs may file recommendations to governments and/or state bodies to address human rights violations and monitor to prevent any future instances.
NHRIs seek to protect and promote all human rights and address violations irrespective of the perpetrator. To be able to do so, their mandate needs to be sufficiently broad to enable them to respond effectively to new challenges and ensure the meaningful protection and promotion of human rights. For a more comprehensive overview of good practices see [Role of the NHRIs in UNGP implementation; Annex to the study on the Role of the NHRIs in UN Guiding Principles implementation].
NHRIs may also work with, or provide guidance on human rights for businesses. Examples of NHRIs working with business include the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)’sGuide for managers and boards. The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has created tools and an on-line hub for businesses, as has the New Zealand Human Rights Commission (NZHRC) as well as the Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR).