Actors & Activities

Last Updated: February 3, 2009


An overview of insider and outsider actors involved in human rights

The main actors involved in human rights promotion and protection in post-conflict settings can be distinguished according to the basic distinction between insiders and outsiders.
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National and local actors (insiders) have "the primary responsibility for the development of effective human rights protection systems. Without this leadership of the state and local actors, efforts are destined to be piecemeal, of limited effect and unsustainable."1  Both local political and societal forces are decisive in the advancement of the human rights agenda. That said, outsiders can play a crucial assistance, supporting and facilitator role, especially in the context of acute resource scarcity and lack of local skills.

Insiders (National/Local) Actors:
  • The local State and its institutions: other judiciary institutions; in the executive branch: law enforcement agencies (including the police and prisons); the legislative bodies.
  • The National human rights institutions (human rights commissions, ombudspersons office)
  • Human rights/civil society groups and organizations (including human rights NGOs, associations of lawyers, law academics, etc.)
Outsiders (Regional/International) Actors:

The State (and its institutions)

Under international human rights law, States Parties have specific obligations to (i) respect, (ii) protect, and (iii) fulfill the rights contained in the different conventions. Failure to perform these obligations constitutes a violation of such rights. A UNDP practice note details these obligations, which help understand the role the State has to play in the promotion and protection of human rights:2

  • The obligation to respect requires State Parties to refrain from interfering with the enjoyment of rights.
  • The obligation to protect requires State Parties to prevent violations of rights by third parties. For instance, the failure to ensure that private employers comply with basic labour standards may amount to a violation of the right to just and favourable conditions of work.
  • The obligation to fulfill requires State Parties to take appropriate legislative, administrative, budgetary, judicial and other measures toward the full realization of rights. This includes the duty to promote human rights.
States are obliged to move as expeditiously and effectively as possible toward the implementation of these obligations. It is in particular directly responsible for its judiciary, police and penal institutions. The legislative bodies also play an important role in the reforms.

National human rights institutions (NHRIs)

The emergence of a new human rights actor

A very large number of national human rights institutions (NHRIs) have been established, mainly since the early 1990s.3 International support for the establishment and strengthening of these national institutions is currently considered as one of the most important ways to improve domestic human rights regimes, especially in emerging democracies and countries recovering from internal conflicts.The potentially important role of national institutions has been acknowledged by several intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations in the field of human rights, as well as governments and donors. The United Nations (UN), in particular, has actively advocated the expansion of national institutions. In 1991, a UN International Workshop on National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights resulted in the drafting of guiding principles that were adopted by the UN Commission on Human Rights as "Principles Relating to the Status of National Institutions" in 1992 (popularly called the "Paris Principles") and endorsed in 1993 by the World Conference on Human Rights and the UN General Assembly.

Link: Principles relating to the Status of National Institutions (the Paris Principles). United Nations General Assembly resolution 48/134, December 20, 1993.

The United Nations has increased its focus on encouraging domestic enforcement of human rights, and providing assistance in the strengthening of national human rights institutions has become an important strategy used by the United Nations to improve human rights protection and promotion at that level.4 The central position that NHRIs have gained in the overall human rights work of the organization, in particular in conflict and post-conflict societies, is reflected in the Secretary-Generals report of 2002 that stresses the centrality of NHRIs in building a sustainable national protection system. "The establishment of independent national human rights commissions is one complementary strategy that has shown promise for helping to restore the rule of law, peaceful dispute resolution and protection of vulnerable groups where the justice system is not yet fully functioning."5 NHRIs are now organized as an international network and have a forum.
Go to National Human Rights Institutions Forum (NHRI Forum)

Different forms and names

In broad terms, a national human rights institution (NHRI) can be described as an independent body established by a national government for the specific purpose of advancing and defending human rights at the domestic level. In practice, a NHRI may be established in the Constitution or by the legislative or executive branch of government. It may be structured as a distinct institution in its own right responsible only to the legislature, an independent office of the legislature or an arms-length office of the executive branch.6

NHRIs have also adopted a variety of forms and functions depending on the national context in which they operate. The names of these bodies also vary considerably, ranging from human rights commissions and consultative councils to human rights ombudsmen, public defenders and peoples protectors. Despite these differences, all national institutions share certain common features: they are expected to work independently from the government, co-operate with relevant actors at home and abroad and contribute to the implementation of international human rights standards by acting as "guardians," "experts," and "teachers" of human rights.7 In particular, a crucial condition for the effectiveness of a NHRI is its independence in law and fact from all branches of government, and especially from the executive/administrative branch, which is usually the main target of its work.8 Assuring independent funding is usually a big challenge.

The different types of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs)

Human rights




Human rights


Human rights



Several commissioners,

civil society can

sometimes participate

in the selection

Pluralist committee

representing various

sectors of civil

society and the


Single-person body

(often assisted by

one or several


Human rights

experts and

pluralistic advisory

board supervising

the work




Promotion and

protection of human


Advising the

government on

human rights issues

Protection of civil

rights and/or human


Promotion of human




Observance of human

rights monitored;

investigation of

complaints; often

conciliatory role

Observance of

human rights


Observance of

human rights


investigation of


Observance of

human rights




Advice to the

government and other

actors in the field of

human rights; opinions

and statements

Advice to the

government, often

only on



Advice to the

government on the

basis of complaints;

opinions and


Advice to the

government and

other actors in the

field of human

rights; opinions and






General awareness-raising;

training in the

field of human rights

Sometimes general


Sometimes general


and educational


General awareness-raising;

education in

the field of human




Research for the

purpose of advisory

function and promotion

of human rights;

sometimes public


Limited research

function, mainly for

the purpose of

advisory tasks

Usually no specific

research function

Research with the

goal of promoting

human rights

Source: Pohjolainen, Anna-Elina. The Evolution of National Human Rights Institutions - The Role of the United Nations. Danish Institute for Human Rights, 2006: 20.

NHRI's mandate

Experts have stressed the importance of preparing detailed terms of reference for NHRIs. They recommend that functions include (but not be limited to):9

  • Monitoring and reporting on human rights, investigation of alleged human rights violations (both at receipt of complaints and at the institutions initiative), hold hearings on and decide on individual cases (often by making binding recommendations to the government) and assisting victims in seeking redress;
  • Reviewing legislation, policies and practices to ensure that human rights standards and principles are reflected and complied with;
  • Making recommendations to the state about reforms necessary to enhance the protection and promotion of human rights;
  • Conducting public inquiries on human rights matters;
  • Promoting awareness and understanding of human rights amongst the general public and key sectors of society.
An important point is that NHRIs mandate to protect and promote human rights may cover government conduct only (which is an important focus of many national human rights institutions and often the sole focus of offices with an ombudsman role), or it may, especially with respect to human rights commissions, also extend to cover cases in the private sector (e.g., discrimination in employment and the provision of services).10 Increasingly, practitioners working in NHRIs stress the importance of monitoring the judiciary and, when necessary, identifying weaknesses and recommendations for change;11 others recommend that nonessential organs of the state be excluded from the purview of a national institution. 12

Last but not least, practitioners also recommend to give a broad mandate to these institutions, as set out in the Paris Principles, and to interpret it also "broadly and progressively and even creatively."13 Especially in conflict and post-conflict situations, a broad and creatively interpreted mandate can greatly increase NHRIs effective contribution to peacebuilding. In that respect, it is also recommended to include systemic investigations and detect patterns of abuses so as to counter a tendency to concentrate primarily on individual complaints and view allegations of human rights violations in isolation.  There is a general consensus that NHRIs can and should do both; only by investigating individual cases can they build the knowledge necessary to see broader trends, patterns, and systems of abuse and weaknesses in the state.14 A key issue is to provide for sufficient powers to enable the institution to undertake its functions effectively, including, in particular, the power to collect and compel evidence and to access state facilities, including places of detention, and to refer matters to court in the case of lack of collaboration or non-compliance with recommendations.15

Among the key factors that constrain and limit NHRIs full potential are the following:16

  • A difficult operating environment;
  • Financial and political dependence on government;
  • Lack of adequate financial and human resources;
  • The absence of a holistic approach to human rights, conflict and peace.
What makes NHRIs effective

Enjoy public legitimacy

National institutions win public or popular legitimacy when they are seen to stand up for the right of the powerless against powerful interests and act fairly in treating issues within their purview. An institutions legitimacy is also always partly rooted in its formal or legal status.

Are accessible

National institutions should make known what they do, and how they can be contacted, to the general public and non-governmental bodies. Their offices should be accessible. Disadvantaged groups in society should be encouraged to use them.

Have an open organizational culture

The public and partner organizations should be con?dent that NHRIs will be welcoming and will take them seriously. Organizations that are open, collaborative and self-critical are far more likely to respond well to the needs of the public and other organizations and to identify shortcomings in their practice.

Ensure the integrity and quality of their members

The quality of members, leadership and staff vitally in?uence NHRIs effectiveness. Good appointment procedures are likely to result in independent, professional and courageous members. Members and staff should not be closely connected to the public service.

Have diverse membership and staff

To be open and accessible, NHRIs need to ensure that members and staff are representative of a societys social, ethnic and linguistic composition. Good gender balance is vital. At the same time, selection should always be on merit.

Consult with civil society

Civil society organizations, in particular human rights NGOs and community- based groups, can be effective links between national institutions and individuals or groups who are politically, socially or economically marginalized.

Have a broad mandate

The most effective national institutions generally have a broad and non-restrictive mandate, which includes civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. Programs should focus on issues of immediate daily concern and be relevant to the public and to public bodies.

Have an all-encompassing jurisdiction

The credibility of NHRIs is seriously undermined when certain authorities with potentially great impact on human rights (such as military or special security forces) are excluded from their jurisdiction.

Have power to monitor compliance with their recommendations

National institutions should have power to monitor the extent to which relevant authorities follow their advice and recommendations. Monitoring should become a consistent practice.

Treat human rights issues systemically

National institutions should identify and respond to issues that are of general concern. Investigations, public inquiries and policy reports are all useful ways of doing so.

Have adequate budgetary resources

NHRIs are often ineffective because they lack resources. Control over their funding should be independent of the government of the day. Governments and legislatures should ensure that NHRIs receive adequate funds to perform all the functions set out in their mandates.

Develop effective international links

NHRIs can become a key meeting point where national human rights enforcement systems link with international and regional human rights bodies.

Handle complaints speedily and effectively

Complainants expect national institutions to have authority to deal with bodies against which complaints are made. Procedures should be simple, accessible, affordable and speedy. Securing compliance with the NHRI's recommendation is also crucial. National institutions should have power to refer their ?ndings to courts of law or specialized tribunals for adjudication when their good offices fail.

Source: International Council on Human Rights Policy (ICHRP). Assessing the Effectiveness of National Human Rights Institutions. 2005.

The International Coordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions (ICC) now evaluates and grades the performance of NHRIs through two main mechanisms: as part of the accreditation process (NHRIs need to comply with the Paris Principles to be accredited; a list of accredited NHRIs is published every year) and through a "universal periodic review."

NHRIs contribution to the peacebuilding process at large

It has become commonplace for the designers of post-conflict human rights systems to propose the establishment or strengthening of independent national human rights institutions/commissions as a central feature of the human rights promotion and enforcement systems.17 "Given the severe human rights problems in most war-torn societies, national institutions with a strong human rights protection role will probably continue to be most relevant for potential inclusion in future peace agreements or as elements of civil reconstruction."18

Beyond the protection of human rights, national institutions play an important role in administrative oversight, as well as in conflict management. This may occur because the judicial branch is weak or politicized, complainants cannot afford litigation or some matters are simply not justiciable. For instance, "human rights commissions are often mandated to investigate and resolve complaints of human rights violations, and hence to address disputes over rights issues. The violations considered may also reflect structural fault lines that have the potential to exacerbate societal conflict such as discrimination against specific groups in terms of access to resources and/or the political process. Commissions may also recommend measures to government to address structural inequalities or injustices existing in society or in the organisation of the state, or they may focus on specific sectors, such as the police, security forces, or prisons, in order to enhance transparency, accountability and respect for human rights."19 They also use alternative approaches to rights protection, such as institution-building, standard-setting, education, and facilitation of public dialogue.

In other words, even if the aims and objectives of such institutions are predominantly or exclusively framed in human rights terms, the implementation of their mandate relates to and has an impact on conflict. And this may have implications for the establishment of long-term sustainable peace in post-conflict societies. It may also potentially have a strong symbolic effect in the society at large, manifesting clearly a change of culture and actively contributing to its development.20

However, all experts emphasize that "their [NHRIs] establishment should not distract from either the primary responsibility of the state to promote and protect human rights or the enforcement responsibilities of the judicial system."21 Indeed, NHRIs are not (and should not be) the sole means of implementing and protecting human rights. They are only "one of a variety of democratic government institutions and non-state mechanisms that are needed in a country to promote good governance and human rights protection."22 As a consequence, in addition to establishing or strengthening national human rights institutions, continuing efforts should be placed on building an independent and highly trained judiciary and improving access to the courts.23
Go to Judicial & Legal Reform / (Re)construction and Access to Justice

NHRIs' partnerships with other actors

The necessity of a holistic approach explains the importance for NHRIs to develop effective relationships and work in partnership with other actors, in particular state institutions--including the judiciary who is often deficient or may have entirely collapsed in situations of conflict and post conflict. Practitioners stress the importance that NHRIs do not substitute for the courts but rather complement them while continuing to monitor their operation. In other words, NHRIs should not be considered a panacea, but instead be established as part of an overall institutional framework, and with a clear understanding of what they can and cannot achieve. "They can play a valuable role in institution-building, legislative reform, monitoring, education, facilitation of public dialogue on rights-related issues, and dealing with allegations of human rights violations. They cannot, however, substitute for an independent judiciary and legitimate and accountable law enforcement agencies. Efforts to establish a national human rights institution must be complemented by a programme of broader judicial change and reform of the police and prison system."24

NHRIs also generally manage to develop relationships with political parties. At one international conference on the role of NHRIs in conflict and post-conflict environments, practitioners pointed out that "sometimes it may be necessary to start such connections through relationships at a personal rather than institutional level. While clearly a short-term approach and not sustainable in the longer term, this can often be the only route to initiating contact so that more formal connections can develop at a later stage. The engagement of politicians in the field, meeting with local communities and providing a forum for direct communication between politicians and affected communities on human rights issues were also agreed as valuable and empowering measures."25 This is not always easy, as NHRIs may be viewed as part of the state apparatus by armed groups or local activists, and may equally have to challenge the state and lobby to ensure that judicial decisions are implemented.26 Moreover, there can be a risk for NHRIs who need to be seen as impartial and apolitical; therefore, some practitioners rather recommend such contacts to be part of a broader outreach effort towards civil society.27 Similarly, cooperation with international agencies and NGOs helps to enhance the credibility of the NHRI and establish an infrastructure of support for those who are actively building peace within and between communities. Many of these networks were in place long before NHRIs were established, and strategic partnerships with these groups and agencies can greatly enhance the impact of their work.
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Local human rights/civil society groups and organizations

A wide range of civil society and community-based organizations are engaged in human rights work at communal, local, regional and international levels. Locally, different types of organizations can be distinguished:28

Human rights groups whose core mandate is the promotion and protection of human rights have activities that generally range "from monitoring, documentation and denunciation of human rights violations to more general advocacy strategies. In most cases, NGOs work on these different roles at the same time, giving more emphasis to one or another, depending on circumstances (e.g. during electoral periods) or the orientation of international support."29 Education is also generally part of their work. These organizations clearly identify themselves as human rights groups first and foremost. They tend to be internationally networked and try at least to develop collaborative relationships with international and transnational human rights NGOs.

"It is worth noting that even for 'core mandate' human rights NGOs located in conflict situations, there are often quite different conceptions of the relationship of human rights work to the conflict, and different underlying motivations prompting activists to become involved in human rights work. For some NGOs, human rights advocacy is part and parcel of a larger struggle, for example,democratization. For others, it is a more straightforward project of accountability, such as exists in any society, but made more acute given the existence of violent conflict.  These differences, which are often not evident during a conflict, may come to the fore during a peace process where they generate debate about the appropriate role for human rights NGOs in the new political climate."30 As a result, these organizations often play an important political role in the peacebuilding process. 31

Groups and associations of professionals whose profession has a direct link with human rights issues: such as associations of lawyers, law academics, and law students.

"Equality" NGOs whose work is focused around the equality claims of a specific community, in particular when it is defined around an aspect of identity,such as gender or age. Women and youth organizations, but also peasants' organizations and trade unions, for instance, often pursue some human rights activities (in terms of monitoring, advocacy, lobbying and education) even though the focus of their work is informed by their constituency.  Go to Empowerment of underrepresented groups

Groups that see human rights as either a sub-issue within their broader mandate, or a way of characterizing their work refer to a broad range of groups, from those dealing withissues such as democracy or development, to single issue groups, such ascampaigns against land mines or plastic bullets, or for adequate housing.Groups dealing with the needs of victims, or ex-prisoners, or refugees, canbe included in this category.

Other members of local civil society whose role is decisive in the advancement of the human rights agenda, such as the media.

The role of local civil society members needs to be distinguished from what outsiders (international NGOs) do and can do, even though there is often a tendency to conflate the two categories. Their interests, cultures and strategies, in particular, do not necessarily coincide and they will have a different impact on the long-run sustainability of the human rights system created or strengthened in a given society.32

International and transnational human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs)

International and transnational human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are major players in peacebuilding around the world. They monitor and report on human rights violations in conflict and post-conflict environments, and consult and lobby governments and internationalorganizations, sometimes participating in high level negotiations anddiplomacy. They also actively participate in human rights work in post-conflict rebuilding phases,some of them being involved in some assistance programs (especially in training and education programs).33

It is worth noting that some civil society organizations and political foundations whose mandate is not centered on human rights, as well as the Inter-Parliamentary Union,  also work in that field and cooperate with international organizations, in particular the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

International and transnational groups tend to be internationally networked, and cooperate with both local NGOs and intergovernmental organizations. The most prominent among them have a consultative status at the United Nations, or are affiliated with a group with such a status. They share the same culture as intergovernmental organizations, even though their positions and interests may vary. As a consequence, officers of intergovernmental organizations fall prey to the natural tendency of working with like-minded people, with whom it is "easier to collaborate."34 Often, international NGOs flood post-conflict environments, occupying an important space in the capital city, which makes them easily accessible to international actors for consultation on any policy issue. This is often perceived by local NGOs as a true "invasion" and unfair competition because outsiders may occupy "a space no longer available to local actors."35  Go to civil society

The United Nations and its different agencies

The entire UN system--including the funds, programs and specialized agencies--has a responsibility to support State Parties to international human rights conventions in their efforts to honor their international obligations. Given the breadth of its possible engagement, is the UN is generally in an exceptional position to support a states efforts for sustainable post-conflict human rights protection. It also "oversees or has the capacity to establish a range of standing and ad-hoc monitoring, reporting, quasi-judicial, judicial and other related procedures designed to assist the sustainable enforcement of human rights."36

The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) plays the leading human rights role within the UN system. In particular, through its technical cooperation program, it supports countries in promoting and protecting human rights by incorporating international human rights standards into national laws, policies and practices, and by building sustainable national capacities to implement these standards and ensure respect for human rights. Moreover, it is engaged in a wide array of activities, including support to human rights education, human rights training for law enforcement agencies, and national human rights institutions. It also provides local actors with advice in different areas.37

These activities are negotiated with individual governments and implemented either directly by OHCHR or through partners.  OHCHR has formalized its relations with a number of its partners by means of negotiation of memoranda of understanding, for instance with such UN bodies as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) as some of the technical cooperation previously performed by OHCHR is now an integral part of peace operations.38 Therefore, OHCHR has been developing closer contacts and collaborations with UN departments and programs responsible for peace operations and humanitarian actions: the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), the Department of Political Affairs (DPA), the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). All of these are involved in some areas of post-conflict human rights work. Since the 1990s, an increasing number of peace operations and other political operations now include a human rights component, and OHCHR has deployed more limited human rights field operations on its own as well as human right officers integrated in UN country teams.  OHCHR now have also regional representatives.

Agencies focusing on specific groups of populations such as the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) have also human rights programs on their own. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is also engaged in human rights educational programs.

Regional human rights mechanisms

There are currently three main regional human rights mechanisms:

Human rights branches of other regional organizations

There are also specialized branches within other regional organizations that are engaged in various areas of human rights, including monitoring and reporting, awareness-raising and education, and capacity- and institution-building.  In the case of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), no human rights mechanism currently exists, but there is a movement toward the establishment of such a mechanism and a charter.  

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Human rights promotion & protection activities

Effective domestic protection of human rights requires a network of complementary norms and mechanisms. These include the following: state adherence to human rights treaties; implementation of international human rights obligations in domestic law; a domestic legal system that provides comprehensive substantive and procedural human rights laws; effective and accessible state institutions where individuals can obtain redress for human rights breaches, such as independent courts and national human rights institutions; a lively human rights civil society community; and a population that has developed a strong human rights culture.39

It is possible to identify six types of activities commonly associated with human rights promotion and protection in relation to peacebuilding:
  • Monitoring
  • Advocacy & Reporting
  • Normative initiatives
  • Capacity and institution building
  • Human rights education and training
Some actors may be involved in only some of these dimensions of human rights work. The set of activities covered in each category or the way to distinguish them also vary. However, it is important to note that these different elements are very much inter-related and collectively contribute to addressing human rights challenges in peacebuilding contexts.

National human rights action plans are sometimes designed by governments. Such an approach reflects the fact that the promotion and protection of human rights is supposed to touch upon all aspects of the life of any society. Indeed, some experts recommend a systemic rights-based programming approach aiming at achieving the non-discriminatory enjoyment of civil, cultural, economic, political and social human rights of the people.40


Human rights monitoring involves continually assessing the extent to which human rights are being enjoyed and exercised. The basic process entails gathering, verifying and analyzing information on specific human rights violations, as well as patterns of violations in order to understand the causes of violations. According to OHCHR, "the purpose of monitoring is not just to share information, but to use that knowledge to ensure better protection and promotion of human rights...In other words, human rights monitoring allows the international community to identify problems and to advance concrete recommendations to solve them."41  This is now known as "diagnostic monitoring."42

Monitoring is carried out by a variety of actors, including UN treaty and regional bodies who make sure that states are meeting their human rights obligations, international human rights organizations, and local human rights/civil society organizations. They often play very complementary roles, even though some competition may at times exist. 43

The UN monitoring mechanisms, or the human rights treaty bodies and the special mechanisms of the Human Rights Council, are the most elaborate, with the most extensive set of instruments and structures. They examine specific themes or country situations from a human rights perspective. The Human Rights Council (HRC) assigns experts (special rapporteurs, special representatives, independent experts) or working groups to examine, monitor and publicly report on human rights situations in specific countries or territories or, more broadly, on themes related to human rights violations worldwide. 

This work also involves treaty ratification and legal review - an exercise which may be quite arid but is generally complemented by other activities and programming efforts.44 Among them are advice and training activities for government officials responsible for preparing reports to the international human rights treaty bodies. The UNOHCHR is organizing such training and providing participants with methodological tools, such as its "Manual on Human Rights Reporting."  Other very useful manuals on human rights monitoring have been published more recently, in particular a recent one by the Norwegian Institute for Human Rights.45 The development of non-governmental capacity to engage with these mechanisms (including for petition procedures) is also important. In both cases, the interaction with experts from the treaty bodies as well as with specialized UNOHCHR staff also contributes to that effort.46

Another enforcement/persuasion tool of the UN is the general mandate of the UN Secretary-General and the High Commissioner for Human Rights to draw attention to human rights concern through public states, reports, and the undertaking of good offices and quiet diplomacy. These functions can be carried out either directly including by means of field visits, or through envoys, representatives and field offices.47

It is important to note that in the current international human rights system, most actors involved in monitoring do not have an enforcement capacity. At the international level, the UN Security Council is the only body who can actually impose sanctions for human rights violations, which it does relatively rare. It may also influence the human rights situation through other means, such as the mandating of peace operations, other resolutions and statements, as well as in the context of occasional field missions.48 At the regional level, some organizations have occasionally voted sanctions for human rights reasons but this is relatively rare). As a consequence, so far, the respect of human rights has mostly been ensured through a combination of persuasion and cooperation mechanisms. With the creation of international criminal courts (the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and ex-Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Court), this reality is progressively changing as human rights monitors have gathered evidence for use by these bodies.49

Advocacy & reporting

Advocacy consists in lobbying governments, third-parties, or international organizations on prescient human rights issues, and in advocating for policy and institutional reforms in the area of human rights promotion and protection. Advocacy can be public (e.g. through speeches, press releases or reports) or private (e.g. through bilateral conversations with key actors, restricted distribution reporting and off-the-record meetings, in particular on the part of UN actors). Some would argue that "every meeting, training session, conversation with government and non-governmental organizations is an opportunity for human rights advocacy."50

Transnational human rights organizations and local human rights/civil society organizations are the best known to carry out advocacy work. However, third-party states, as well as the UN Secretary-General, and other UN agencies, are also involved in human rights advocacy.

Normative initiatives

Normative initiatives concentrate on the ratification of international human rights instruments and their incorporation into domestic laws, policies, and practices. In the wake of a conflict, there is often a review of the extent of adhesion by the state to international instruments.  The government is then pressured to ratify at least the core United Nations and, where relevant, regional instruments, together with related procedures for petition and complaint. No less important is the process of commencing the review of compatibility of domestic law and practice with international standards.51

This is of particular importance for the revision or drafting of a new Constitution. For instance, issues addressed in the OHCHRs constitutional activities include "legislative drafting and constitutional law; the drafting of bills of rights; the provision of justiciable remedies under the law; options for the allocation and separation of governmental powers; the independence of the judiciary; and the role of the judiciary in overseeing the police and prison systems."52  Go to Constitutions

Furthermore, any legislation that has a clear impact on human rights is potentially subject to revision. For example, guidance may be given in drafting specific laws such as press freedom laws, minority legislation or laws securing gender equality; experts of the UNOHCHR may review drafts provided by a government and make recommendations.53

Capacity- and institution-building

Capacity- and institution-building seeks to strengthen national capacities for the protection of human rights by creating, reforming and reconstructing key institutions. This emphasis is particularly crucial at the peacebuilding phase in post-conflict environments (in comparison with the conflict, peace-making and peace-keeping phases).

Capacity- and institution-building generally consist of three areas of activity:

Establishment and development of national human rights institutions.  Strategic support to national human rights institutions (NHRIs) has gained an increasing importance, in particular on the part of the UN system (especially UNOHCHR and UNDP). It is considered to potentially have "spill-over effects for larger reform processes."54 The process of establishing national human rights institutions facilitates policy dialogue on human rights, and strengthening NHRIs may help them to play a catalytic role for reforms in other areas. Similarly, it is important that NHRIs are established with sound founding legislation and maximum legitimacy, which requires adequate constituency building and linkages with parliament.55

OHCHR has developed a range of activities contributing to the development of these institutions beyond each specific context. It "supports the sharing of best practices among national institutions and their involvement in UN and other international and regional fora; promotes the establishment of regional networks of national institutions; and encourages treaty bodies and special procedures to turn to national institutions as sources of expertise and country knowledge in order to ensure follow-up to their recommendations. OHCHR has also issued a practical manual for those involved in the establishment and administration of national institutions and has organized seminars to guide government officials in the structure and functioning of such bodies."56

A key dimension of the support to NHRIs is to strengthen their collaboration and coordination with the judiciary, prosecution, police and prisons. Indeed, NHRIs and other quasi-judicial institutions are not a substitute for other components of the justice system, although they can be an effective complement to them in post-conflict settings. Linkages are therefore extremely important to ensure and support.57

Advice to the judiciary, the parliament, the executive branch and law enforcement agencies (military, police, prisons) on international human rights standards related to their work; outside actors (both intergovernmental organizations and NGOs) are often reluctant to work with prison staff to improve incarceration conditions because of a fear of being associated with human rights violations in detention facilities or providing legitimization. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) are the most active in this important field.
Go to Judicial & Legal Reform / (Re)construction

Support to the development of other elements of local human rights systems (in particular civil society groups). The capacities of local civil society organizations may need to be enhanced in order to allow them to investigate, document and report instances of killings, physical injury, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, etc.58 This support can be financial, technical and organizational.
Go to Civil society

Human rights education and training

Education and training activities are conducted by most actors (both insiders and outsiders) involved in human rights in peacebuilding contexts, although the lack of resources devoted to that dimension is regularly denounced as a weakness. Training may be considered as an integral part of capacity building efforts but is also conducted independently of capacity building programs and often in a rather limited way.

Five main types of programs--corresponding to different audiences--can be identified:

Training courses for local human rights practitioners and activists. These programs are mostly developed through (or in collaboration with) local human rights organizations. As resources are generally quite limited, actors involved in such activities have increasingly tried to work strategically with existing trainers or individuals who hold intermediary positions, rather than seeking to deliver courses to random groups from each target category.

Orientation and training courses for civil servants, including judges, prosecutors, lawyers, prison staff, police and security personnel. Such courses allow participants to become more familiar with the human rights standards that apply to the administration of justice, as well as humane and effective techniques for the performance of law enforcement, penal and judicial functions. These courses also equip participants with the knowledge necessary to incorporate human rights into their own countries manuals and training activities and to review existing regulations and practices to ensure conformity with human rights standards.59 It may sometimes be difficult to present work with some groups (in particular judges) as pure "training"; therefore, some actors (in particular NHRIs) may organize a "colloquium" that can be more easily accepted.60

Promotion of human rights education and public information. Through the broadcast of human rights-related information and messages on the radio, television and other mass media; drama, sports, artistic and cultural events are also used to reach parts of the population often cut off from human rights discourse. Human rights education aims at enhancing knowledge about human rights and the mechanisms for their protection. It also promotes values, beliefs and attitudes that encourage individuals to uphold their own rights and those of others. Education makes an essential contribution to the prevention of human rights abuses and conflict and helps create a society in which all persons are valued and respected.

Training programs targeting the media as they play a key role in raising public awareness on human rights but can also contribute to misperceptions about the nature of human rights. The media are potentially a useful ally with whom different actors involved in human rights work (and more particularly NHRIs) need to develop a positive and cooperative relationship.

Human rights training and educational materials for teachers in primary and secondary schools; activities on human rights in schools (national competitions, celebration of the international day of human rights, etc.)

The OHCHR has initiated different efforts to support these training and education programs; they aim at:

  • Facilitating information-sharing and networking among human rights education actors through activities such as the development of OHCHRs Database and Resource Collection on Human Rights Education; the organization of events to initiate and strengthen activities with a human rights education focus; and the provision of support to activities organized by partners;
  • Developing country technical cooperation projects that include human rights education and training components;
  • Supporting local efforts for human rights education through the Assisting Communities Together project (a UN fund which provides financial assistance to grass-roots initiatives);
  • Disseminating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, now available in more than 320 languages.61
1. Michael O'Flaherty, "Future Protection of Human Rights in Post-Conflict Societies: The Role of the United Nations," Human Rights Law Review 3, no. 1 (2003), 57.
2. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Human Rights in UNDP: Practice Note (April 2005).
3. Linda C. Rief, "Building Democratic Institutions: The Role of National Human Rights Institutions in Good Governance and Human Rights Protection," Harvard Human Rights Journal 13 (Spring 2000): 2. 
4. Ibid: 3-4. 
5. United Nations Security Council, Report of the Secretary General, Rule of Law and Transitional Justice in Conflict and Post-Conflict Societies, UN Doc. S/2004/616 (August 23, 2004) 11, para. 31.
6. Rief, "Building Democratic Institutions: The Role of National Human Rights Institutions in Good Governance and Human Rights Protection," 3-4. 
7. See Anna-Elina Pohjolainen, The Evolution of National Human Rights Institutions - The Role of the United Nations (Copenhagen: Danish Institute for Human Rights, 2006); see also Rief, "Building Democratic Institutions: The Role of National Human Rights Institutions in Good Governance and Human Rights Protection," 2-4. 
8. Rief, "Building Democratic Institutions," 2-4
9. Michelle Parleviliet, National Human Rights Institutions and Peace Agreements: Establishing National Institutions in Divided Societies (International Council on Human Rights Policy, 2006): 35-36.
10. Rief, "Building Democratic Institutions," 3-7 and Comment by Bill O'Neill, 10 October 2008. 
11. Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Report of the International Roundtable on the Role of National Institutions in Conflict and Post-Conflict Situations (Belfast, Northern Ireland, June 2006), 6-7.
12. Parleviliet, National Human Rights Institutions and Peace Agreements: Establishing National Institutions in Divided Societies, 35-36.
13. Report of the International Roundtable on the Role of National Institutions in Conflict and Post-Conflict Situations, 5-6.
14. Comment by Bill ONeill, 10 October 2008.
15. National Human Rights Institutions and Peace Agreements, 35-36.
16. For more details on each of these factors, see Michelle Parlevliet, Guy Lamb and Victoria Maloka, eds., Defenders of Human Rights, Managers of Conflict, Builders of Peace? National Human Rights Institutions in Africa (University of Cape Town, South Africa: Centre for Conflict Resolution, 2005), 159-163.
17. O'Flaherty, "Future Protection of Human Rights in Post-Conflict Societies," 55; Rief, "Building Democratic Institutions," 13.
18.  Rief, "Building Democratic Institutions: The Role of National Human Rights Institutions in Good Governance and Human Rights Protection," 15-16.
19. Parlevliet et al., Defenders of Human Rights, Managers of Conflict, Builders of Peace? National Human Rights Institutions in Africa, 10.
20. Parlevliet, National Human Rights Institutions and Peace Agreements, 33-34; Building Democratic Institutions, 2-3. 
21. O'Flaherty, "Future Protection of Human Rights in Post-Conflict Societies," 55.
22. Rief, "Building Democratic Institutions," 68.
23. Ibid, 69.
24. Parlevliet, National Human Rights Institutions and Peace Agreements, 35.
25. Report of the International Roundtable on the Role of National Institutions in Conflict and Post-Conflict Situations, 5-6.
26. Ibid.                                                 
27. Comment by Bill O'Neill, 10 October 2008.
28. The following categorization is partly based on the work of Christine Bell and Johanna Keenan, although they identify only three different categories; see Christine Bell and Johanna Keenan, "Human Rights Nongovernmental Organizations and the Problems of Transition," Human Rights Quarterly 26 (2004): 336-337.
29. Beatrice Pouligny, "UN peace operations, INGOs, NGOs, and promoting the rule of law: exploring the intersection of international and local norms in different postwar contexts," Journal of Human Rights 2, no. 3 (September 2003): 360-361.
30. Bell and Keenan, "Human Rights Nongovernmental Organizations and the Problems of Transition," 336-337.
31. Pouligny, "UN peace operations, INGOs, NGOs, and promoting the rule of law," 360-361.
32. See "UN peace operations, INGOs, NGOs and promoting the rule of law," 362-363; see also Beatrice Pouligny, "Civil Society and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding: Ambiguities of International Programmes Aimed at Building New Societies," Security Dialogue 36, no. 4 (December 2005): 495-510.
33. Daniel A. Bell and Joseph H. Carens, "The Ethical Dilemmas of International Human Rights and Humanitarian NGOs: Reflections on a Dialogue Between Practitioners and Theorists," Human Rights Quarterly 26 (2004): 301-302.
34. Pouligny, "UN peace operations, INGOs, NGOs and promoting the rule of law," 362-363.
35. Pouligny, "Civil Society and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding: Ambiguities of International Programmes Aimed at Building New Societies," 501.
36. O'Flaherty, "Future Protection of Human Rights in Post-Conflict Societies," 62.
37. See Cees Flinterman and Marcel Zwanborn, Global Review of the OHCHR Technical Cooperation Programme: Synthesis Report (Netherlands Institute of Human Rights SIM in partnership with MEDE European Consultancy, September 2003), 5.
38. O'Flaherty, "Future Protection of Human Rights in Post-Conflict Societies, 62.
39. Rief, "Building Democratic Institutions," 3. 
40. O'Flaherty, "Future Protection of Human Rights in Post-Conflict Societies," 54.
41. United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Human Rights in Action: Promoting and Protecting Rights Around the World (Geneva, 2003), 14.
42. Comment by Bill O'Neill, 10 October 2008.
43. Pouligny, "UN peace operations, INGOs, NGOs, and promoting the rule of law," 360-361.
44. O'Flaherty, "Future Protection of Human Rights in Post-Conflict Societies," 54.
45. Skare, Siri, Ingvild Burkey, and Hege Mork. Eds. Manual on Human Rights Monitoring: An Introduction for Human Rights Field Officers. Oslo: Norwegian Centre for Human Rights, 2008: 
46. OHCHR, Human Rights in Action, 11-13; Flinterman and Zwanborn Global Review of the OHCHR Technical Cooperation Programme; Future Protection of Human Rights in Post-Conflict Societies, 55.
47. O'Flaherty, "Future Protection of Human Rights in Post-Conflict Societies," 69.
48. Ibid.
49. Comment by Bill O'Neill, 10 October 2008.
50. Human Rights Professionals, Guiding Principles for Human Rights Field Officers Working in Conflict and Post-conflict Environments (Geneva, July 2008).
51. O'Flaherty, "Future Protection of Human Rights in Post-Conflict Societies," 54.
52. Human Rights in Action, 7.
53. Ibid.
54. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Christen Michelsen Institute, Governance in Post-Conflict Situations: Justice, Security, & Human Rights (2006), 83.
55. Ibid.
56. Human Rights in Action, 7-8.
57. Governance in Post-Conflict Situations: Justice, Security, & Human Rights, 86.
58. Ibid, 81.
59. Human Rights in Action, 8.
60. Rief, "Building Democratic Institutions," 6-7. 
61. Human Rights in Action, 8-11.

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