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National Human Rights Commission – Role in Human Rights Protection

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Published on: March 12, 2010

Human rights attach to all persons equally, by virtue of their humanity, irrespective of race, nationality, or membership of any particular social group. They specify the minimum conditions for human dignity and a tolerable life. Human rights are those which are inherent to all human beings whatever be the nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, color, religion, language, or status in the society. Human rights encompass a wide variety of rights. Human rights are universal and moral. All individuals entitled to these rights without any discrimination on any ground. All these rights are interdependent, inter-related and indivisible.

Human rights are important to the stability and development of all the countries around the world. Great emphasis has been placed on international conventions and their implementation in order to ensure obedience to a universal standard of acceptability. With the advent of globalization and the introduction of new technology, these principles gain importance in protecting human beings from the ill-effects of change. However the efficacy of the mechanisms in place today has been questioned in the light of blatant human rights violations and disregard for basic human dignity in nearly all countries in one or more forms. In many cases, those who are to blame cannot be brought to book because of political considerations, power equations etc. When such violations are allowed to go unchecked, they often increase in frequency and intensity usually because perpetrators feel that they enjoy immunity from punishment.


Human rights can be defined as the fundamental rights which the humans have by the fact of being human, and which are neither created nor abrogated by any government. Human rights are the rights and freedoms of all human beings. They are fundamental and universal. Human rights consist of civil and political rights as well as economic, social and cultural rights. Supported by several international conventions and treaties (such as the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human rights in 1948), these include rights such as right to life, liberty, education and equality before law, and right of association, belief, free speech, information, religion, movement, and nationality. Promulgation of these rights is not binding on any country, but they serve as a standard of concern for people and form the basis of many modern national constitutions. Although they were defined first by the UK philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) as absolute moral claims or entitlements to life, liberty, and property, the best-known expression of human rights is in the US Declaration of Rights in 1776 which proclaims that “All men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent natural rights of which when they enter a society they cannot by an compact deprive or divest their posterity.” The term came into wide use after World War II, replacing the earlier phrase “natural rights,” which had been associated with the Greco-Roman concept of natural law since the end of the Middle Ages. As understood today, human rights refer to a wide variety of values and capabilities reflecting the diversity of human circumstances and history. They are conceived of as universal, applying to all human beings everywhere, and as fundamental, referring to essential or basic human needs. The following definition expresses clearly the meaning of human rights:

“A human right is a universal moral right, something which all men, everywhere, at all times ought to have, something of which no one may be deprived without a grave affront to justice, something which is owing to every human simply because he is human.” An alternative explanation was provided by the philosopher Kant. He said that human beings have an intrinsic value absent in inanimate objects. To violate a human right would therefore be a failure to recognize the worth of human life.

Rights have been catalogued by the United Nations in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)—a General Assembly resolution that is not legally binding—and elsewhere. Other accounts are present in many countries’ constitutions and regional organizations of states including Europe. Different countries ensure these rights in different ways. For eg: In India they are contained in the Constitution as fundamental rights, i.e. they are guaranteed statutorily. In the UK they are available through precedence, various elements having been laid down by the courts through case law. In addition, international law and conventions also provide certain safeguards. The first generation of civil and political rights restricts what others (including the state) may do, for example, life, liberty, and freedom from torture. A second generation of social and economic rights requires active provision, such as by imposing an obligation on government. Some analysts call them ideals, often constrained in practice by inadequate resources. A third generation concerns such rights as peace, development, and humanitarian assistance.

Today there is universal consensus that all individuals are entitled to certain basic rights under any circumstance. These include certain civil liberties and political rights. The most fundamental of these rights is the right to life and physical safety. Human rights are the articulation of the need for justice, tolerance, mutual respect, and human dignity in all the activities. Speaking of rights expresses the idea that all individuals are part of the scope of morality and justice.



Protection of Human Rights Act was passed in the year 1993 with a view to provide for a constitution of a National Human Rights Commission, State Human Rights Commission and Human Rights Courts for better protection of human rights and for matters concerned therein. It lays down provisions for – constitution of National Human Rights Commission, appointment of its chairperson and other members, removal of the members of the Commission, term of office of members, terms and conditions of service of members, procedure to be regulated by the Commission, officers and other staff, functions and powers of the Commission and the method to be followed in case of a complaint.


In terms of section 2 of the Act, “human rights” means the rights relating to the life, liberty, equality and dignity of the individual, guaranteed by the Constitution or embodied in the International Covenants and enforceable by the courts in India. “International Covenants” means the International Covenant on Civil and Political Right and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 16th December, 1966.


One of the primary functions of NHRC is to receive complaints and initiate investigations into violations of Human Rights by public servants by acts of commission and omission through negligence on their part to prevent violation of human rights when brought to its notice within one year of the commission of such violation. Since its inception, the Commission has handled a variety of types of complaints. In the latest period, the major types of complaints have been: in respect of police administration – Failure in taking action, Unlawful detention, False implication, Custodial violence, Illegal arrest, Other police excesses, Custodial deaths, Encounter deaths, Harassment of prisoners; jail conditions; Atrocities on SCs and STs; Bonded labor; child labor, Child marriage; Communal violence; Dowry death or its attempt, dowry demand; Abduction, rape and murder; Sexual harassment and indignity to women, exploitation of women and numerous other complaints which cannot be categorized, have also been taken up .


Since its inception in 1993 the NHRC has been at the forefront of protection and promotion of human rights in our country. It has made significant contributions to bring a human rights approach to legislation, policy and programs in our country. Its contributions in India have gone beyond the expected role of investigating alleged violations, conducting public inquiries, exercising advisory jurisdiction, providing advice and assistance to governments, creating awareness, promoting interaction, exchange, and better coordination among other state and international human rights institutions and publishing annual reports.. Its contributions in the fields of child labor, rights of the disabled, education, food security, right to health, right to development and good governance; making the Indian Criminal Justice System victim centric and custodial justice, sexual harassment and trafficking of women in India; to name a few issues, have been pertinent towards strengthening the Human Rights Jurisprudence in our country in the

past decade and a half. It has set the agenda for a methodology towards a rights based approach at an international level as well.

Over the years the NHRC has highlighted several important human rights issues and taken on many challenges cases. The commission took up the issue of starvation deaths with the collaboration of the Supreme Court in 1996 and has made several significant contributions. Its role in the ‘Punjab Mass Cremation Case’ where it highlighted the concept of deemed custody with the police and awarded compensation has been appreciated by one and all. The commission’s work with respect to overseeing the functioning of Mental Health Institutions has also been laudable.

However, the role of the Human Rights commissions cannot be viewed in isolation. The role and impact of the NHRC and state human rights commissions also depends on the strength of their financial and other resources. Their effectiveness also depends on how well their role is understood by collaborative agencies such as the police, judiciary and other functionaries of the state machinery.


Optimum realization of human rights can be achieved through the enactment/development of protective law and the establishment of mechanisms to implement that law. National human rights institutions, along with inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations, can play an important role in promoting human rights at the domestic level. According to the Paris Principles relating to the status of national institutions, a national human rights institution should “cooperate with the United Nations and other organizations in the United Nations System, the regional institutions and the national institutions of other countries that are competent in the areas of the protection and promotion of human rights.” Cooperation and collaboration, in fact, reinforce the initiatives taken by the institution and thereby enhance its overall effectiveness.

National Human Rights Commission is well aware of these principles and hence developed a close and cooperative relation/ties between a number of institutions and persons in order to achieve its objective as mentioned in the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993.


The Commission attaches considerable significance to the dissemination of information and awareness on human rights issues. It has already come out with several publications, both priced and non-priced, on variety of subjects related to human rights. The Commission which had in December, 2004 released a collection of eight booklets under the “Know Your Rights” series, continued its endeavor to have it translated in all the regional languages. The booklet series is now available in 8 regional languages apart from English and Hindi. The process of its publication in 5 other regional languages is underway. As a part of its objective of human rights education at the University level, the Commission continues to hold summer and Winter Internship program. During these internship programs, selected students are sensitized towards the activities of the Commission and human rights values.


Other Programmes and Human Rights issues taken up by the Commission include – review of the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, Protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Preventing Employment of Children by Government Servants : Amendment of Service Rules, Abolition of Child Labor, Guidebook for the Media on Sexual Violence against Children, Trafficking in Women and Children: Manual for Judiciary for Gender Sensitization, Sensitization Programme on Prevention of Sex Tourism and Trafficking, Maternal Anemia and Human Rights, Rehabilitation of Destitute Women in Vrindavan, Combating Sexual Harassment of Women at Work Place, Harassment of Women Passengers in Trains, Abolition of Manual Scavenging, Dalit issues including atrocities perpetrated on them, Problems faced by denotified and Nomadic Tribes, Rights of Disabled, Right to Health, HIV/AIDS, Relief Work for the Victims of 1999 Orissa Cyclone, Monitoring of relief measures undertaken after Gujarat Earthquake 2001, District Complaints Authority and Population Policy – Development and Human Rights.


India has been a nation where many of its people have been denied their rights and the exploitation of human life has desensitized many of us. In this context, NHRC should continue with its focus on educating our nation on the importance of human rights for human rights.

Globalization has also led to interesting yet formidable challenges in the area of Human Rights Jurisprudence. And in the era of globalization the NHRC has a key role to play in ensuring that the all sections of society can productively engage with the expansion of opportunities. We must ensure that globalization does not further perpetuate the gross economic and social inequalities that exist in our country. By ensuring equal opportunities and protecting citizens against discrimination and inaction, the NHRC can provide a level playing field to all our citizens and help in shaping our country into a truly global leader. The NHRC and other institutions concerned with the development of good governance must also examine how the harnessing of technology can help in the promotion of good governance. Technology if harnessed well and universalized in access can be a great social leveler. . For instance, the impact of the internet and related technologies in the promotion of good governance through better delivery of various government services cannot be underscored. Thus, promotion of universal access of technology, in particular, of the internet and tele-communications would go a long way in strengthening the social fabric of our society and deepening democracy itself And as long as India as a country is unable to bridge the wide socioeconomic gap amongst its people, the challenge towards development of appropriate Human Rights Jurisprudence and its practice, protection and enforcement must remain a constant and rigorous effort.


The objective assessment of the Commission’s endeavors must come from the people of India, whom it seeks to serve in all of their rich diversity and varying circumstances. Not unexpectedly, given the seriousness of the issues that the Commission has faced and the variety of expectations concerning it, diverse views have been expressed on the worth of the Commission’s efforts. An institution that was unknown ten years ago is now very much part of the life of the nation and, increasingly, of consequence to the quality of its governance. The performance of a national institution has to be assessed in terms of not only its successes in achieving its stated objectives, but also the constraints within which it has worked. A pertinent question here is whether the NHRC as the requisite powers to fulfill its functions as a national institution with a statutory basis. Compared to the institutions of similar nature around the world, it has a relatively heavy case-load; that is, it handles a larger number of complaints of violation of human rights, or of negligence in preventing such violation. And dealing with complaints is only one of the 10 major functions assigned to the Commission under Section 12 of the Act. Its ambit ranges from reviewing safeguards for the protection of human rights and performing such other functions as it may consider necessary for the promotion of human rights. However, year after year the NHRC has been complaining of a lack of response from the Union government to its pleas to amend the law so as to realize its objective of “better protection of human rights and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto”.

Each day, hundreds of our compatriots seek the intervention of the Commission for the redressal of their grievances, stemming from what they perceive to be the violation of their human rights. They belong to all parts of India and to all of its communities. Within the past ten years, there can be no doubt that the awareness of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution, and included in the international instruments to which India is a State party, has increased dramatically. Such critics are entitled to their views, but they appear to be mis-informed about the provisions of the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993 which expressly preclude the Commission from inquiring into any matter “which is pending before a State Commission or any other Commission duly constituted under any law for the time being in force” or to inquire into any matter “after the expiry of one year from the date on which the act constituting the violation of human rights is alleged to have been committed.” They also appear to be unaware that the Commission sought an amendment to these provisions of the Act, along with others, over three years ago, but that its recommendations in this respect are yet to be acted upon.


Human rights are a sort of special moral entitlement. They belong to an individual as a consequence of being human. Human rights are defined at different places differently. In India, human right now days is a burning issue. The act passed to protect human rights i.e. Protection of National Human Rights Act, 1993 was passed very recently with a view to prevent human rights violations. The setting up of the NHRC through the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993, is an important development in the quest for human rights in India. The appointment of such Commission can make a platform for institutionalizing the concept of human rights in addition to the provision of fundamental rights as enshrined in the Constitution of India.

It is very necessary to protect the interests of people like SC, STs, etc. because these people form the vulnerable section of the society. Also, the procedure followed in NHRC and SHRCs needs to simplify a bit so that everyone including the vulnerable sections can access it. The concept of separate human rights courts which is coming up nowadays can perhaps help in more efficient protection of human rights of the vulnerable sections of the society.

Available at accessed on 4/1/2010

Available at accessed on 4/1/2010

S. Augender, “Questioning the Universality of Human Rights”, 28(1&2) Indian Socio Legal Journal (2002) at 80.

A. I. Melden, “Rights and Persons”, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977 at 189.

supra note 3

Available at accessed on 5/1/2010

supra note 4

Human Rights Act, 1993

Ray Arun, NATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION OF INDIA, Khama Publishers, Vol I, 2nd edn., 2005, p. 111

Available at files/FAQ1.htm accessed on 7/01/2010

Available at accessed on 21/12/2009


Ibid. at p. 507



Available at accessed on 24/01/2010.

National Human Rights Commission, Annual Report – 2002-2003





supra note 23


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