Changes in national human rights systems: The NHRI–NMIRF dynamic

Credit: Yassine Benhaddou, Danish Institute for Human Rights.

The “domestic institutionalization” of human rights, understood as the promotion of human rights actors, frameworks, and processes for national human rights systems, has recently undergone a major development. In addition to the long-standing promotion and proliferation of national human rights institutions (NHRIs), the United Nations conceptualized in 2016 and now actively encourages the establishment of national mechanisms for implementation, reporting, and follow-up (NMIRFs). 

NHRIs are part of state institutions, but they operate independently from governments: their mandate focuses on human rights monitoring and protection through, for example, addressing complaints and holding the government accountable. NMIRFs are governmental structures (e.g., ministries, interministerial committees) that coordinate state reporting and follow-up, and several ensure the human rights implementation of national policies by all government departments and ministries.

Our new research shows that NHRIs’ experience and influence over NMIRFs are key to ensuring that NMIRFs provide an opportunity to concretely advance human rights compliance beyond ensuring that the state submits timely reports to treaty bodies or the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review. Both NHRIs and NMIRFs are essential and complementary actors, provided that the latter focus on states’ implementation responsibilities. 


NHRIs and NMIRFs as distinct and complementary actors

The UN secretary-general has heralded both NHRIs and NMIRFs as “key” and “complementary elements” of national human rights systems. The distinction between the two is, in theory, clear. Similar to Article 33 of the 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, independent NHRIs are in charge of human rights monitoring, protection, and promotion, whereas governmental structures such as NMIRFs are in charge of implementation, as well as reporting and follow-up. In practice, however, many actors seem to experience lingering uncertainties about NHRIs and NMIRFs’ distinctiveness. In Italy, for example, our research shows that parliamentarians have questioned the need to establish an NHRI, given the existence of an NMIRF. International gatherings of NMIRFs have also demonstrated that the distinction is not always fully grasped by NMIRFs themselves. Some have sought to extend their competencies in areas that have typically been the prerogative of NHRIs, such as handling complaints.

Similarly, our study demonstrates that NHRIs have reacted to the establishment of NMIRFs in various ways. Some, such as the National Human Rights Commission of Mauritius, cooperate with the NMIRF in the elaboration of state reports, appearing to embrace a distribution of roles whereby the NMIRF is in charge of international reporting and human rights implementation, and the NHRI is tasked with complaints handling. Others, like the Ombudsperson of Portugal, keep the NMIRF at arm’s length and choose to act only as an observing member. Consequently, the former always submits comments to the NMIRFs during the preparation of state reports, while the latter only prepares independent reports. The NHRIs in Denmark, Moldova, and the Republic of Korea systematically do both.

The variations in NHRIs’ approaches may depend on their historical mandates and their strategic assessment of the usefulness of international reporting and follow-up; other factors include their leadership and personalities. Sometimes, NHRI staff have different views as to how to cooperate with NMIRFs. 


Navigating synergy and accountability in NHRI–NMIRF interactions

Our study offers recommendations to NHRIs on how to navigate interactions with NMIRFs while retaining their independent status. Based on the findings generated by our case studies, we find that NMIRFs and NHRIs may have:

Distinct functions in respective mandate areas: There is a clear international understanding that protection activities and complaints handling fall under NHRIs’ but not NMIRFs’ mandates.

Interlinked functions in similar areas: Both NHRIs and NMIRFs have a similar mandate covering international reporting and follow-up, but their interventions in this field are distinct and complementary. NMIRFs are responsible for preparing and submitting state reports. NHRIs may either provide comments on the draft state report without assuming the NMIRFs’ drafting responsibilities and/or submit their own independent report directly to the treaty bodies, which becomes a separate written contribution helpful for international oversight.

Shared responsibilities leading to joint activities: Human rights promotion and awareness-raising activities, or the production of data and indicators, may typically be collaborative activities.

Similar functions exercised in parallel: Consultations with civil society are an essential task of both NHRIs and NMIRFs that they carry out independently.

In other words, NHRIs and NMIRFs act jointly in some fields, while in others, it may be the case that they have distinct responsibilities or that NHRIs hold NMIRFs accountable for action. Countries in our case studies have used memoranda of understanding, action plans, or legislation to spell out roles and deflect accusations of the lack of independence of NHRIs in interacting with NMIRFs. 


What NHRIs expect of NMIRFs to be effective

The establishment of NMIRFs provides opportunities for NHRIs. For example, NHRIs can relinquish activities that they had been performing in the absence of a governmental body dedicated to human rights. Some NHRIs had been tracking follow-up actions to be taken by government ministries in implementing international recommendations. NHRIs can now demand that NMIRFs ensure that the state fulfills its follow-up responsibilities.

However, this is only possible where NMIRFs have an implementation mandate, with administrative processes and the proper institutional authority (e.g., anchored in the office of the prime minister rather than within a single ministry). The Danish case reveals that an NMIRF with a limited mandate focused mostly on submitting timely international reports—but with restricted authority and agency for proactive follow-up—may not be well equipped to enhance implementation. Worse, its existence may be used by the government to dismiss NHRIs’ requests for the adoption of national human rights action plans or as an excuse for not engaging in harmonizing national legislation with international standards. 

Our case studies show that NHRIs have an interest in NMIRFs’ mandates, including the implementation of both international and regional recommendations and national human rights policies and plans. Follow-up should not be interpreted narrowly: it includes tracking implementation and effectively pushing governmental bodies to act. NMIRFs with such wide mandates can be entry points to seek accountability, thereby offering victims an avenue to access redress and compensation decided by courts, NHRIs, or treaty bodies.

Some NMIRFs have such broad mandates and the necessary administrative and political authority to ensure human rights implementation by government departments. The NMIRF of Moldova, for instance, engages in reporting and follow-up, but its primary mandate is the development and implementation of national human rights action plans and legal harmonization. In turn, Moldovan NHRIs can strategically contribute to the NMIRFs’ work while also holding the government accountable.


Looking forward: Setting implementation standards for NMIRFs 

So far, NHRIs and their networks have involved themselves to only a limited extent in the local establishment and international promotion of NMIRFs. We argue that NHRIs must be a stronger voice in the ongoing changes, not least because they are directly impacted by the growth of NMIRFs. Now is the time to do so: treaty bodies and states are moving towards producing principles for NMIRFs, and temptation exists to limit this guidance to timely reporting and the creation of tracking databases. NHRIs and their networks need to remain attentive and provide support and recommendations to the NMIRFs to ensure that their proliferation actually serves human rights implementation and compliance.