The Development of National Human Rights Systems

by Ambassador Christian Strohal,

Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR)

OSCE PA Trans-Asian Parliamentary Forum
"The Trans-Asian Dimension of the OSCE: A Vital Security Link"

Almaty, 8 June 2003

Your Excellencies!

Ladies and Gentlemen!

The protection of human rights is a cornerstone for developing a stable and secure society. National human rights systems lie at the very heart of any effective human rights protection. I am therefore very pleased to be able to address you on this important topic today. It is the OSCE participating States that have the first responsibility for guaranteeing the rights prescribed by the OSCE human dimension commitments. These commitments underline that the protection and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms are one of the basic purposes of government.

Let me recall the principle of co-operation which has underpinned the work of the OSCE since its start; namely that human rights and pluralistic democracy are not to be considered an internal affair of a state. In fact, OSCE participating States have "categorically and irrevocably" declared that the "commitments undertaken in the field of the human dimension of the OSCE are matters of direct and legitimate concern to all participating States and do not belong exclusively to the internal affairs of the State concerned" (Moscow Document, 1991). As far as pluralistic democracy is concerned, it is obvious that free and fair elections constitute an essential pre-requisite.

Through its human dimension commitments, the OSCE has become not only a "community of values" but also a "community of responsibility". This "responsibility" does not only focus on the right to point out violations of human dimension commitments in other states, but also on the duty to assist each other in solving specific human rights problems.

The ODIHR has the mandate and responsibility to assist all 55 participating States "to ensure full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, to abide by the rule of law, to promote principles of democracy and to build, strengthen and protect democratic institutions, as well as to promote tolerance throughout society". We fulfill the mandate by engaging in constructive dialogue, by providing assistance to parliaments and governments on a broad range of issues and by working together closely with civil society.

National human rights systems encompass a comprehensive set of legislation, practice and implementation, and provide control to ensure effective compliance with international standards. The role of parliaments in this system cannot be overestimated. They translate international standards into national reality through legislation, control over implementation and through feedback with civil society.

Let me highlight only a few specific issues with which you, as parliamentarians, are dealing and where ODIHR can contribute:

Ombudsman Institutions

One area where the ODIHR has been active in this respect is by providing assistance to the establishment of national human rights institutions, including Ombudsman institutions. These institutions play an important role as they offer people an opportunity to have their complaints heard, evaluated and investigated by independent bodies. While these institutions are not directly involved in the outcome of judicial processes, they can comment on complaints and offer recommendations, aiming to remedy the situation and prevent it from happening again.

The 1991 OSCE Paris Principles affirm that national institutions should have the competence to promote and protect human rights with as broad a mandate as possible, set out clearly in a constitution or legislative act. Under these Principles, national institutions shall comment on human rights matters to government, parliament or any other competent body; promote conformity of laws and practices with international standards; encourage implementation of international standards; contribute to international human rights reports; increase public awareness of human rights; and co-operate with other human rights institutions.

In Central Asia, the ODIHR has supported the authorities in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in the establishment of an Ombudsman office. In Uzbekistan, we assisted the Ombudsman office in upgrading operational capacities in its central and regional offices.

The minimum characteristics an Ombudsman or other national human rights institution must possess are independence, impartiality and fairness, credibility of the review and investigation process, and confidentiality. The most independent of national human rights institutions are those established in a country's constitution or in a law. Commissions on human rights that are responsible to the executive authority often function at the direction of the executive and generally are not as independent as those created by law with powers of investigation and recommendation separate from the executive.

There are however a number of obstacles facing new Ombudsman and human rights protection institutions. Often, lack of resources, both in terms of budget, and of office space is a serious problem impeding the work of these institutions. Challenges also include difficulties in establishing an institution that is credible and respected both by the citizens as well as the agencies under its jurisdiction. It is here that International Human Rights Institutions such as the ODIHR can offer assistance.

Freedom of media

Freedom of media is a basic condition for pluralistic and democratic societies. OSCE commitments are firm in this respect. OSCE participating States have committed themselves to take all necessary steps to ensure the basic conditions for free and independent media. In connection with commitments on freedom of expression and information, they set the framework that is crucial for the effective functioning of national human rights systems.

Rule of law

Another important aspect in the OSCE human dimension is the linking of human rights with the general institutional and political system of a state. Specialized human rights institutions cannot work in a vacuum. The OSCE participating States have agreed through their human dimension commitments that pluralistic democracy based on rule of law is the only system of government suitable to guarantee human rights effectively. I would therefore like to give some examples of what the ODIHR does to promote security and human rights beyond its support to specific human rights institutions.

The human dimension commitments in this area are far-reaching and detailed. For the ODIHR, the rule of law represents- and here I quote the Copenhagen Document- "not merely a formal legality…but justice based on the recognition and full acceptance of the supreme value of human personality and guaranteed by institutions providing a framework for its fullest expression."

To make the rule of law active and real, the ODIHR has generated programmes of co-operation and support for its participating States. Some of these programmes have a regional outreach, others concentrate on a specific state. One good example of successful assistance is the ODIHR's Legislative Reform Assistance Programme through which our experts can provide reviews of draft laws affecting human rights in view of their compliance with international human rights standards.

Within the framework of this programme, the ODIHR is currently organizing a roundtable to be held here in Almaty in a few days on a draft law on NGOs, proposed by the Kazakh Government. We hope that the ensuing discussion will allow all parties to express their views and concerns and to hear the opinions of international experts.

Another example is our cooperation with the authorities in Bishkek. Kyrgyzstan's law on the organization of, and participation in demonstrations, was recently reviewed by the ODIHR. The law, which was adopted last year, will soon be changed again and we hope that we will again get an opportunity to offer our expertise and provide input.

Gender equality

The equality of women and men and the protection and promotion of the human rights of women are essential to sustainable democracy and to security and stability in the OSCE region. OSCE participating States have confirmed that the goal is to achieve not only de jure but de facto equality of opportunity between men and women. It is in this respect important that national governments ensure that effective mechanisms are put in place and applied so as to give real effect to these rights at the national level.

The ODIHR has been involved in gender equality and awareness projects in many countries of the OSCE area. In Kazakhstan, the Women's Rights Awareness training project, launched in 2000, has created a strong team of local trainers who have conducted several hundred seminars all over Kazakhstan. On the eve of local elections and elections to the Parliament in 2004 our project will assist women in their preparations and effective participation in the upcoming electoral process.

Let me stress however, that it is not enough to confine the issue of gender equality to specialized institutions or mechanisms. All OSCE participating States have committed themselves to making equality between men and women an integral part of all their policies.


Another important area, which highlights the need for national systems as well as for regional co-operation, is the fight against trafficking in human beings. There is a compelling need for clearer guidance on how to identify a trafficked victim, how to investigate related crimes and how to co-ordinate assistance. In order to respond to human rights violations and break the cycle of abuse, a mechanism must be developed through which state actors can fulfil their obligations to protect and promote the human rights of trafficked persons. This must be done in co-ordination and strategic partnership with civil society and other actors dealing with trafficked victims.

To address this need, the ODIHR is, among its many anti-trafficking activities, currently developing a handbook on the establishment of effective and inclusive national referral mechanisms addressing all target groups as defined in the UN Protocol, which the OSCE participating States have committed themselves to ratify.


Before concluding, I would like to reflect on the balance between state security and human rights protection, a topic of emerging importance for the whole OSCE region. In November 2001, my predecessor Ambassador Gérard Stoudmann, together with Mary Robinson, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Walter Schwimmer, Secretary-General of the Council of Europe, made a joint statement on the subject of upholding human rights and fundamental freedoms:

    ''While we recognize that the threat of terrorism requires specific measures, we call on all governments to refrain from any excessive steps which would violate fundamental freedoms and undermine legitimate dissent. In pursuing the objective of eradicating terrorism, it is essential that States strictly adhere to their international obligations to uphold human rights and fundamental freedoms."

The points made are still valid. Any strategy to prevent and combat terrorism must have human rights at its heart. Human rights law strikes a fair balance between legitimate national security concerns and fundamental freedoms. We must recognize that violating human rights in the fight against terrorism is self-defeating and counter-productive. The development of strong national human rights systems can only serve to strengthen the fight against terrorism.

Ladies and Gentlemen!

The establishment of strong national human rights systems represents a clear prerequisite for the stability of democratic societies and thus a means to foster security in our entire region, an objective which has been so comprehensively recalled by President Nasarbaev at the opening of this Forum. The responsibility for implementing these OSCE's human dimension commitments lies first and foremost with the governments in participating States. Parliaments play a crucial legislative and monitoring role in this regard, ensuring effective checks and balances. My institution stands ready to offer assistance and support wherever possible to achieve our common goal.

Thank you.