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Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighbourhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.

Eleanor Roosevelt, “In Our Hands” (1958 speech delivered on the tenth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)


Global and regional human rights instruments and their corresponding mechanisms are designed to ensure states protect and promote the equal rights of all persons. By recognising universal human rights standards in international settings, and freely choosing to become parties to those treaties, states are obliged to take action to ensure these standards match the reality of each individual on the ground. National human rights instruments and bodies, therefore, should reflect these commitments and take responsibility for ensuring the accurate translation of international human rights standards into domestic law.

What are NHRIs?

National human rights institutions (NHRIs) are bodies created by constitutional and/or legislative mandates aimed at protecting and promoting human rights. These institutions are considered a central element of strong national human rights systems, connecting civil society with state actors and ensuring international human rights standards are transformed into realities at home. Their work can broadly focus on eliminating discrimination, including gender-based discrimination, and promoting and protecting all civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. Alternatively, some NHRIs may be more targeted, focusing on a specific area of human rights, such as women’s rights or tackling violence against women.

NHRIs are funded by their respective states and, unlike civil society organisations and other non-governmental organisations, are considered a formal part of their state apparatus.

However, these bodies operate independently from their governments in fulfilling their mandates. The “Paris Principles” (“Principles Relating to the Status and Functioning of National Institutions”) were adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1991 as the basic standards for NHRIs, requiring each have:

  • A broad mandate based on universal human rights standards
  • Autonomy from other State entities
  • Independence guaranteed by statute or constitution, but also by adequate and stable funding and staffing
  • Pluralism including through membership and/or effective cooperation
  • Adequate powers of investigation

In fulfilling their mandates, NHRIs undertake a variety of actions that typically fall into three categories:

  • Protection: accepting and investigating and human rights complaints; monitoring human rights situations; public inquiries
  • Promotion: public education; human rights documentation
  • Advising Governments and Parliament: advising the state on human rights issues; human rights research; working with security forces, law enforcement and national stakeholders – including civil society

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Types of NHRIs

Although the Paris Principles outline basic standards for NHRIs, they do not require NHRIs adopt a specific model in fulfilling their mandate. As such, the form each NHRI takes will vary depending on the context of the state they operate within. The most common models of NHRIs adopted are:

  • National Human Rights Commissions: these NHRIs are state-sponsored bodies consisting of multiple members acting as decision-makers. They have an explicit human rights mandate, however some may focus on a specific area – for example, women’s human rights. Typically, National Human Rights Commissions are empowered to investigate human rights violations and serve broader advisory and educational roles.
  • Human Rights Ombudsman Institutions: also known as Public Defenders, these NHRIs are usually led by a single decision-maker. Unlike traditional ombudsman, which focus exclusively on maladministration, human rights ombudsman institutions have a state-sponsored mandate to protect and promote human rights.
  • Hybrid institutions: sharing many features with human rights ombudsman institutions, these NHRIs are state-sponsored and operate with multiple mandates. They are usually led by a single decision-maker and aim to protect and promote human rights but may also broadly address other issues related to maladministration, corruptions and the environment.
  • Consultative and advisory bodies: state-sponsored with a mandate to protect and promote human rights, these NHRIs advise or consult on a wide range of human rights issues, and may undertake human rights research. Because they are usually driven by multiple social forces, these bodies tend to have a large number of decision-makers from different fields
  • Institutes and centres: like consultative and advisory bodies, these NHRIs typically have large membership. However, these bodies have much broader membership from all levels of society and decision-making is usually left to select staff members. Centres usually undertake research in human rights issues.

International Coordinating Committee of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights

The International Coordinating Committee for National Human Rights Institutions (ICC) was established in 1993 to promote and strengthen NHRIs from around the world. It is an international association of NHRIs that focuses on assisting NHRIs achieve compliance with the Paris Principles, also undertaking action to:

  • Facilitate and support NHRI engagement with the UN Human Rights Council and Treaty Bodies
  • Encourage cooperation and information sharing among NHRIs, including through an annual meeting and biennial conference
  • Provide accreditation of NHRIs in accordance with the Paris Principles to the United Nations
  • Promote the role of NHRIs within the United Nations and with States and other international agencies
  • Offer capacity building in collaboration with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
  • Assist NHRIs under threat
  • Help governments establish and strengthen NHRIs
Note: NHRI’s with ICC accreditation are authorized to engage with the work of the UN and take part in ICC activities, but this is not necessary for their functioning. Many NHRI’s operate without ICC accreditation and participate in regional NHRI associations.

iconLockWant more? NHRI’s interested in applying for accreditation with the ICC can find more information on requirements and the application procedure online

Regional and cross-regional NHRI networks


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