Professor Dr. Mizanur Rahman, the Chairman of National Human Rights Commission of Bangladesh

Professor Dr. Mizanur Rahman

South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is already more than 26 years old. It was established in the South Asian region for the regional cooperation. SAARC incorporated a wide range of issues into its Charters, documents, Conventions and programmatic actions once it came into being and developed gradually. It, however, has failed to incorporate human rights agendas in its charters, documents and conventions. It is even reluctant to deliberate on the human rights issues during its summits whereas many other similar organization in the world are already with regional and sub-regional mechanisms on human rights. Concerned individuals, interest groups and organizations have been endeavoring for the establishment of such a mechanism in the region and several regional workshops have been accordingly for the purpose at the civil society level.

In this context INFORMAL had talked to Professor Dr. Mizanur Rahman, the Chairman of National Human Rights Commission of Bangladesh and Former Chief Justice and Chairperson of National Human Rights Commission of India J S Verma fielding a range of questions relating to the establishment of a sub-regional human rights mechanism in the region. Excerpts:

How do you assess the overall efforts made so far toward establishing a regional Human Rights Mechanism in South Asia?

Quite a number of efforts have been taken. However, these efforts have failed to bring all the actors (governments, NHRIs, CSOs) on board and have also been unable to maintain consistency in their endeavors.

What, do you think, should be the rationale of establishing such a mechanism in this region?

The first rationale is, of course, the huge population of the region. South Asia is the host of on e-fifth of the world’s population. Secondly, the region is also very unique in nature because of its diversity in religion, culture and the livelihood pattern of the population. Similarly, this region faces the lack of effective initiatives from the respective governments in defending diversity and addressing geo-political situation, illiteracy and poverty through human rights perspectives. Thus, urgency of a regional human rights mechanism is very high here.

Many raise the issue that SAARC Charter itself has been a hindrance toward establishment of such a mechanism and it also lacks human rights related issues within it. Do you think the SAARC Charter has something to do with in this connection?

The SAARC Charter was adopted in 1985 at the time of the establishment of the organization. The Charter primarily focused on the area of economic cooperation. Later, the SAARC Social Charter was adopted in January 2004 focusing on the areas of social development. I think we can consider the Social Charter as the base for establishing a human rights.

What other constraints do you see or foresee?

The major constraint, from a South Asian perspective, is that we are still with two strata of problems. Firstly an Asian Charter for Human Rights does not exist, and secondly, there is no South Asian Convention for Human Rights. Though there is a SAARC Charter, some follow up Charters and the Declarations of the SAARC Summits, a common standard of human rights jurisprudence and implementation mechanism has not materialized yet.

What will be the role of the political parties and governments in this connection?

Since the region is still lagging behind in terms of consolidated democratic polity in general, the political parties and governments here are not very much in favor of such a mechanism. Despite this fact, regional human rights mechanism has to be established so that stakeholders will be held accountable for human rights, good governance and social justice.

Organizations and people working for the establishment of such a mechanism are quite optimistic. However, governments and political parties in the region seem reluctant. How can we bridge such a gap seen between them?

Public opinion, both locally and internationally, is increasingly asserting for the establishment of a regional mechanism. This growing understanding and public pressure is being reflected at different levels, including at the international community. Particularly, the UN related bodies are playing a more effective role to persuade the member states to setup statutory official human rights institutions at the national level and they have also been encouraging for regional cooperation among them. Similarly, the level of acceptance of the universality of human rights has increased. Mounting awareness among civil society and increasing cooperation among the people on a regional basis to address human right issues has also set stage for a more conducive environment. These factors give every reason and justification to be optimistic about the realization of the basic objective to establish a common Human Rights Charter and effective mechanism to protect human rights on regional basis among the countries in South Asia.

Almost all the governments in this region are similar. Let’s say they are established under democratic norms. But, often, religious or ethnic matters are put forth when it comes to the matter of establishing such a mechanism. Do you think these matters will come as a hindrance?

These issues are seen as a hindrance, not only in the case of South Asia.  It happens elsewhere. In my opinion, such a hindrance is not something that cannot be resolved.

Hopefully, such a mechanism will be established. Once established, what sorts of issues should be harmonized by it?

Harmonization might not be the solution in every case. But, there are several issues especially in the area of Economic, Social and Cultural rights, where a regional level of intervention is very much worthy.

What do you think the inter-governmental stand and role will be in this matter?

In order to materialize the dream of making regional human rights mechanism, a strong sense of cooperation between the NHRIs of South Asian Countries is primarily of prominent importance. The need for coordination between National Human Rights mechanisms was stressed at the Second International Workshop on National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, held in Tunis in 1993.

Do you have any more to say regarding this issue?

I question myself- How difficult is the task? Faith, hope and promise are the tenets of our human rights record. Our idealism and efforts bind us firmly and a humanist cause brings us together. This facet of our polity is our strength to search for a solution to our social justice related problems and to achieve a society where ‘fundamental human rights and worth of human persons’ would be secure. At the age of globalization of human rights, a SAARC Human Rights Mechanism is not a fallacy, neither a dream but an achievable possibility. Human rights diplomacy can help us in achieving that goal by cultivating an environment of peace.