National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) are bodies set up to protect and monitor human rights – to stand up for those in need and to hold governments to account. They can also provide advice, deal with complaints and carry out human rights education.

“They are important because, if you believe in the appropriation of universal value by people and if you believe in the ownership of people of their own destiny, you need to believe in their own administration and in the integration of human rights in these administrations,” said Patrice Lenormand, former Deputy Head of Unit in the Human Rights, Gender, Democratic Governance Unit of the Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development.

NHRIs are established by law or in a constitution, but they operate and function independently from governments. They thus have the potential to bridge the gap between individuals’ rights and the state’s actions to defend these. 

In July 2015, the Council of the European Union adopted the Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy for 2015-2019. This is the key reference document for integrating human rights into development cooperation.

It states that during this period, the “EU will put special emphasis on ownership by, and co-operation with, local institutions and mechanisms, including national human rights institutions, as well as civil society.” 

EU support for NHRIs is part of a wider trend in development policy, in which donors help developing countries find their own solutions, rather than trying to fix things from the outside. In many cases, for example, it is more effective to help countries build their own tax collection systems to pay for public services than to fund those services directly from outside.



A big advantage of NHRIs is that they help get round the problem of accountability, which is essential to the UN’s post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As institutions of accountability NHRIs will then have an important role in the implementation and monitoring of the SDGs, and holding governments responsible for this. 

But calling countries to account over human rights can be controversial, as many developing countries see this as a demand to cede sovereignty in exchange for aid. NHRIs need to answer to outsiders, but in a less intrusive way. They must obey a set of independent rules – the so-called Paris Principles, which set out their duties – and if they submit a formal application for recognition they undergo peer review from the Sub-Committee on Accreditation (SCA). These classify the NHRIs into categories: A, for those up to standard; B for those which are not fully in compliance with the Paris Principles; and C for those that are not compliant.

“We are not here to judge which are the right ones or the wrong ones,” said Lenormand. “The national human rights institutes judge themselves. We are engaged in support – to help this peer review mechanism, to help the Cs to move to B, and the Bs to move to A.” 

The hybrid status between government and non-government sometimes makes for a tricky balancing act. “Our role is often not well understood,” said Irabiha Mint Abdel Wedoud, President of the Commission Nationale des Droits de l’Homme (CNDH) in Mauritania. “We are neither civil society, which denounces, nor the government. With the steps of a tightrope walker, we have a common vision of a National Human Rights Institution which conforms to the Paris Principles and those of independence – and which brings together the visions of civil society, parliamentarians and unions, as well as that of the government.”



Local oversight also provides better long-term prospects for human rights. Governments see strengthening their domestic institutions as a way towards international acceptance. And building strong human rights institutions at the country level “is what in the long run will ensure that human rights are protected and advanced in a sustained manner”, according to the United Nations

While Iraq struggles to rid itself of occupation by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), for instance, it also suffers from the lack of democratic institutions over several decades under Saddam Hussein. “The National Institution for Human Rights is very important institution because, in the last regime in Iraq, under the Saddam regime, there were no human rights,” said Dr Salama al-Khafaji, from the Iraq High Commission for Human Rights. “We would like to play a role in the development in the country – in the areas which are settled and in the areas which are going to be liberated from ISIL.”



The EU contributes through capacity development. Chile adopted legislation for an NHRI in 2005 but this did not at first have sufficient resources. But after work with the EU over the past three years, it is operating effectively. “It has started to work and is up to standard,” said Lenormand. “Now in Chile, there is a public authority which is checking the laws, checking the administration and giving advice on how to respect human rights.”

Human rights and development used to be seen as separate challenges, often because the situations were so urgent. Development policies needed to find ways to feed starving children, while human rights groups focussed on securing basic democratic rights and freedoms as a condition for any kind of progress. 

One result, however, was that economic, social and cultural rights – the rights to things like education, housing and health – were sometimes left aside. These rights seemed outside the traditional human rights’ realm of justice, democracy and protection from discrimination. At the same time, say some critics, economic policies often over-emphasised headline economic growth through competitiveness, and sacrificed human wellbeing.

That was one reason for the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, according to Abdeljelil Bédoui, a member of the Steering Committee of the Forum Tunisien pour les Droits Économiques et Sociaux (FTDES), “The current economic development model makes it difficult to respect and protect human rights,” he said at European Development Days 2015. “The model gives rise to problems such as social inequality and regional inequalities.”

Now, the EU is making sure that development and human rights go together. “These National Human Rights Institutions are an extremely good symbol of the reconciliation between development and human rights,” said Lenormand. “Our purpose is to support the local organisation of national citizens who are themselves local actors of their country’s own history and own issues. Sometimes they need some support from the outside.”

Further Reading

This collaborative piece was drafted by Sebastian Moffett with input from Sofia Lemmetyinen with support from the Coordination Team. Images copyright of DG ECHO.

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DISCLAIMER: This information is provided in the interests of knowledge sharing and capacity development and should not be interpreted as the official view of the European Commission, or any other organisation.

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