National Human Rights Commission, Bangladesh (NHRC,B) was established in 2009 with a view to supporting the government in its efforts to establish and improve human rights by observing human rights situation, giving recommendations to the government, and ensuring accountability of the government. The current commission has been working for the last one decade. The position of chairperson is going to be vacant by June as the current Chair is going to be retired and the member posts are going to be vacant by August this year. The selection process of the new chairperson and members will start soon. The civil society thinks, in order to ensure an independent and effective human rights commission, the selection process should be transparent and participatory. This is essential in order to ensure its independent functioning as a constitutional body. Keeping that in mind, on 30 June 2019 a roundtable discussion titled “What kind of NHRC do we want” was organised by Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK) at CIRDAP Auditorium, Dhaka. Representatives from civil society, human rights activists and various UN bodies and development partners shared their opinions in that regard.
According to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) Act 2009, Honorable President of Bangladesh will appoint Chairperson and members based on nominations by a 7-member selection committee chaired by honorable speaker of the parliament. The discussants of the roundtable demanded that the selection process of the chairperson and members to the commission must be done in a transparent, participatory, and neutral manner, without any political influence. For that, a formal selection process needs to be followed, the discussants remarked. They also demanded that the NHRC Act has to be reviewed and amended immediately in accordance with the Paris Principles, which is a state obligation.
In many countries of the world, an open selection process is followed in selecting their chairperson and members of the commission. Open applications are invited. As part of that, potential candidates can apply for themselves or civil society organisations can recommend names of candidates. From that, the selection committee prepares a list of possible candidates on the basis of criteria set earlier and familiar to all. Then they take stakeholders’ opinions and recommendations on that list, based on which the selection committee then takes the final decision. During the last few years, the selection committee did not make any attempts to discuss or share with the civil society. Also, there was very little information made public regarding the selection process. Everyone present in the roundtable expected that this time the selection committee would discuss with civil society organisations.
Recommendations coming out from the discussion:
1. Ensure participation of civil society in the selection and the election process of the member.
2. Institutionalise the selection process by following Paris Principles. Although the Act mentions who will be included in the selection committee, it has not stated how the selection will be done. It needs to specify a policy or criteria and inform the people on how the interested persons will express their interest to be members of the committee, based on which qualities they will be selected, and how far the selection committee will be able to work independently.
3. Immediately reform the NHRC Act in order to ensure a more transparent and inclusive member selection process and include a section in the law relating to public notice and open discussion.
4. Nominate those persons who have contributions to human rights, law, judicial services, education, social works or human development in accordance with the NHRC Act. While selecting, prioritise those who have in-depth knowledge on human rights.
5. Earlier, the chief executive (Chairperson) and permanent member position holders were men. So this time at least one woman should be appointed in the top two positions.
6. Refrain from appointing former secretary or government officials to ensure independent and neutral functioning of the commission.
7. Inform the public time to time through the media about what process is being followed in appointing chairperson and members to the commission.
8. Apart from the permanent member and the Chairperson, the other five members of the commission are appointed in an honorary basis. They are involved in other full-time responsibilities outside the commission. It is important to make necessary changes by reforming the foundation law. In the interim period, measures also need to be taken to ensure that the honorary members can make meaningful contributions to activities of the commission.
9. Include representatives of diverse population groups.
10. According to the law, presence of at least four members is imperative to fill the quorum of the selection committee. In such case, presence of government representatives only is enough to fill the quorum. The Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANRI) has expressed its concern over this. Keeping that in mind, there is a need to ensure presence of opposition party representatives so that no allegation can be brought that governmental candidates have been favored in the nomination.
11. Ensure nomination of two names for each member position.
12. Give more importance/value on members’ personal qualifications and credibility rather than the organisations they work for.
13. Avoid political nominations in order to ensure independence and effectiveness of the commission.
There have been concerns expressed for a long time over the non-compliance of Paris Principles as well as standards set by GANHRI with regard to the selection of NHRC members. GANHRI in its general observation (2011 and 2015) clearly mentioned that the selection process has to be transparent and the vacancy of positions should be well publicised, as it also mentioned that broad discussion with the stakeholders should be held throughout the selection and selection process. One significant reason, as GANHRI has identified in its report, for Bangladesh NHRC getting “B” status is the lack of transparency and accountability in the selection process. Our neighboring countries like Afghanistan, Nepal, India and also many African countries have obtained “A” status, but we are still in “B” status which undermines our country’s image. On the other hand, lack of transparency in the member selection process has questioned the neutrality and effectiveness of the commission. Therefore, making the selection process transparent, accountable as well as involving civil society in its every step to restore people’s trust on the commission is a demand of the time.