A United Nations-recognised global alliance of human rights body has deferred the accreditation of India’s National Human Rights Commission for the second time in a row.

Political interference in appointments, involvement of the police in inquiry into cases of human rights violation, insufficient action to protect marginalised groups, lack of diversity in staff and lack of cooperation with the civil society are among the reasons cited by the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions for deferring the accreditation.

The National Human Rights Commission has held the “A” status – the top rung in the accreditation system – since the process was started in 1999.

In the latest review of the status in March, the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions put the National Human Rights Commission’s accreditation on hold. If the commission does not address the concerns raised by GANHRI within a year, India’s statutory human rights body could be downgraded to “B” rank.

The accreditation of the National Human Rights Commission had been put on hold in 2016 as well. But after a year of deferment, its “A” status was eventually retained in November 2017, The Hindu reported.

Why is the accreditation important?

The Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions represents 110 human rights bodies across the world. The accreditation status it gives is based on the United Nations’ Paris Principles, which was adopted in 1993.

The Paris Principles lists six criteria that human rights bodies must adhere to – mandate and competence, autonomy from government, independence guaranteed by a statute or Constitution, pluralism, adequate resources and adequate powers of investigation.

Human rights bodies that are fully compliant with these principles are given the “A” status. In case they are partially compliant, a “B” status is given. The global alliance reviews the accreditation every five years. Without the accreditation, the National Human Rights Commission will not be eligible to represent India at the UN Human Rights Council, according to The Indian Express.

Why is the accreditation on hold?

In 2017, even as the Global Alliance of National Human Rights granted accreditation to the National Human Rights Commission after a year-long deferment, it had raised concerns about the functioning of India’s statutory human rights body, according to Article 14. Some of the grounds based on which the accreditation has been put on hold now are:

  • Police involvement: The global alliance noted that involvement of the police in functioning of the commission was against the Paris Principles. The Protection of Human Rights Act, under which the panel was set up in 1993, has provisions for investigation by the police in cases of human rights violation in India. But the global alliance had raised the matter in its review of accreditation in 1997 as well, saying that police interference raises questions on the independence of the commission. “There may be a real or perceived conflict of interest in having police officers engaged in the investigation of human rights violations, particularly those committed by the police,” it noted in its March review.
  • Government interference in appointments: In 2017, the global alliance had also flagged that the Paris Principles mandated that human rights bodies are “able to operate independent of government interference”. The National Human Rights Commission fell short on this requirement as Indian laws allow the central government to appoint the secretary general of the human rights body. Currently, Indian Administrative Services officer Devendra Kumar Singh holds the post of secretary general in the NHRC. The appointment of former Supreme Court judge Arun Kumar Mishra as the NHRC chairperson had also come under criticism from the Opposition parties. In its review report in March, the global alliance noted that members appointed to human rights bodies from public services “raises question about its capacity to function fully independently”.
  • Cooperation with civil society: The Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions said that it had received a submission noting that the relationship between the the National Human Rights Commission and non-government organisations and human rights defenders was not “effective or constructive, particularly with respect to collaboration”. Regular and constructive engagement with the civil society is essential for human rights bodies to fulfill their mandates, the global alliance observed in its March review. It, however, did not specify the source of the submission on the NHRC not cooperating with civil society in India. However, seven human rights bodies had written to GANHRI in March, flagging the “lack of independence, pluralism, diversity, and accountability” in the NHRC. The signatories to the letter included Amnesty International, the Centre for Policy Research and the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, whose foreign funding licenses have been cancelled or withheld by the Union home ministry.
  • Lack of pluralism in staff: In 2017, the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions had pointed out that the composition of the commission was incomplete as three of the six member positions were vacant. The vacant positions were to be held by those with “knowledge of or practical experience in human rights”, including one woman member. In the March review, the global alliance appreciated the NHRC for fulfilling these requirements, but flagged that India’s human rights body was still short of pluralism requirements of the Paris Principles. “Only having one member who is a woman does not represent appropriate gender balance,” the review noted. It further said that out of 393 staff positions in the NHRC, only 95 were held by women.