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A shield for democracy

There is an urgent need to set up a South Asian human rights commission.

india Updated: Dec 29, 2011 23:06 IST
C Raj Kumar
C Raj Kumar
Hindustan Times

The protection and promotion of human rights ought to occupy the central agenda of democratic governance. The recent protests in West Asia and Anna Hazare's movement are part of a growing effort to make governments accountable and responsive to the legitimate expectations and aspirations of citizens.

Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the world has witnessed the creation of multiple regional mechanisms for upholding human rights. Unfortunately, Asia is the only region that does not have a regional human rights mechanism. This is about to change, at least in Southeast Asia, with the establishment of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Human Rights Commission in the form of a sub-regional mechanism. In 2009, in Thailand, 10 countries adopted the Cha-Am Hua Hin Declaration that launched the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR). A working group for an Asean Human Rights Mechanism has been constituted that is working with the AICHR in designing institutional capacities for this new regional human rights mechanism that is expected to have a set of human rights principles, a commission and a court. While civil society has been advocating for a regional human rights machinery for many years, the fact that it is becoming a reality is an important reminder for all of us to seek the establishment of a regional human rights mechanism within South Asia in the form of a South Asian Human Rights Commission (SAHRC).

South Asia has a regional body in the form of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc). The Saarc countries have an obligation to take steps towards establishing a regional human rights machinery. The need for the establishment of a SAHRC is based on certain factors: First, human rights accountability, South Asia is witnessing a range of social, economic and political transformations. A regional human rights accountability mechanism will help in ensuring accountability through established principles of international human rights law.

Second, democracy and rule of law: South Asia is home to established democracies that are going through a transition phase. This makes these countries vulnerable as far as protecting the rule of law and building democratic institutions goes. A regional human rights mechanism would help in providing a broader framework that is not confined to the domestic human rights issues that are affecting a country.

Third, non-State actors: The establishment of a SAHRC will help in responding to the violations of human rights committed by non-State actors. Globalisation as a phenomenon has created conditions for corporations as non-State actors to exercise powers without corporate accountability leading to violations of human rights. Because of a number of factors, it has become difficult for corporations to be prosecuted in domestic legal settings. The traditional matrix of rights that get enforced against the State in domestic law settings needs to be re-examined, particularly in the context of multinational corporations.

Given the complexities of the relationship between many countries in South Asia and the difficulties they may have in coming together to develop wide-ranging meaningful collaborative initiatives on social, economic, political, development and governance issues in a bilateral manner, there is an urgent need for establishing a regional human rights mechanism for South Asia that will protect and promote civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.

C Raj Kumar is the Vice Chancellor of OP Jindal Global University and Dean of the Jindal Global Law School. The views expressed by the author are personal.

First Published: Dec 29, 2011 23:02 IST