Giving Human Rights Commissions more teeth

  • IASbaba
  • March 20, 2020
  • 0
UPSC Articles
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Indian Polity

Topic: General Studies 2:

  • Statutory, regulatory and various quasi-judicial bodies. 

Giving Human Rights Commissions more teeth

Context: The Madras High Court is to decide on whether the recommendations made by such panels are binding upon the state

A Brief Background

  • In 1993, the Indian Parliament enacted the Protection of Human Rights Act. 
  • The purpose of the Act was to establish an institutional framework that could effectively protect, promote and fulfil the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Indian Constitution. 
  • Therefore, the Act created a National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), and also, Human Rights Commissions at the levels of the various States.
  • These institutions can be considered as “fourth branch institutions” (similar to how other institutions like ECI, CAG, CIC which perform vital functions of Constitution)
  • HRCs was established in conformity with the Paris Principles, adopted for the promotion and protection of human rights in Paris (October, 1991) and endorsed by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 20 December, 1993.

Functions and Powers of NHRC/SHRC

  • They are empowered to inquire into the violations of human rights committed by state authorities, either upon petitions presented to them, or upon their own initiative.
  • While conducting these inquiries, the Commissions are granted identical powers to that of civil courts, such as the examining witnesses, ordering for documents, receiving evidence, and so on. 
  • Section 18 of the Protection of Human Rights Act empowers the Human Rights Commission to “recommend” to the concerned government 
    • to grant compensation to the victim 
    • to initiate prosecution against the erring state authorities, 
    • to grant interim relief, and to take various other steps. 
  • Furthermore, Section 18 of the Human Rights Act also obligates the concerned government to “forward its comments on the report, including the action taken or proposed to be taken thereon, to the Commission”, within a period of one month.

Criticism of NHRC/SHRCs

  • Politicisation of autonomous bodies
  • The Human Rights Commissions are toothless: The word “recommend” in Section 18 of the act has been interpreted till now as only advisory in nature and not binding on the government. Thus, the government left free to disobey or even disregard their findings.
  • If the state was left free to obey or disobey the findings of the Commission, then the constitutional role of NHRC/SHRC would be effectively pointless (effectively, the state judging itself)
  • NHRC does not have any mechanism of investigation. In majority cases, it asks the concerned Central and State Governments to investigate the cases of the violation of Human Rights
  • Inadequacy of funds hamper the working of these bodies.
  • A large number of grievances go unaddressed because NHRC cannot investigate the complaint registered after one year of incident.
  • National Human Rights Commission powers related to violations of human rights by the armed forces have been largely restricted.

A case for making the recommendations & reports of HRCs binding on government

  • In the past, courts have invoked constitutional purpose to determine the powers of various fourth branch institutions in cases of ambiguity
  • The Supreme Court laid down detailed guidelines to ensure the independence of the Central Bureau of Investigation
  • Various judgments have endorsed and strengthened the powers of the Election Commission to compulsorily obtain relevant details of candidates, despite having no express power to do so.
  • Very recently, the Supreme Court held in the context of “opinions” rendered by the Foreigners Tribunals, held that these “opinions” were binding.
  • The Human Rights Commission has the powers of a civil court, and proceedings before it are deemed to be judicial proceedings. 
  • This provides strong reasons for its findings to be treated — at the very least — as quasi-judicial, and binding upon the state (unless challenged)


  • The requirement of state accountability in a democracy committed to a ‘culture of justification’ — strongly indicates that the Commission’s recommendations should be binding upon the state

Connecting the dots:

  • National Commission on Scheduled Castes (NCSC)/ National Commission on Scheduled Tribes/ National Commission on Backward Classes – are their recommendations binding?
  • Tribunalisation of Judiciary

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