Philippa Webb and Kirsten Roberts: How can parliamentary oversight of human rights be made more effective? Report to be launched in Geneva this week.

KRWebb_photoThere is intense interest in the UK in the role of the judiciary in protecting and promoting human rights, but Parliaments can also play a vital role. The UK Joint Committee on Human Rights, which has featured on this blog, is widely admired as a mechanism for the oversight of human rights. However, it is not the only possible oversight mechanism, and it, too, could be improved.

This week at the United Nations in Geneva, the results of an 18-month project spanning 9 jurisdictions on Effective Parliamentary Oversight of Human Rights will be launched. We will be putting forward proposals aimed at encouraging parliaments to become more effective in their human rights work.

An advance copy of the Outcome Document can be downloaded here.

In democracies, parliaments are crucial in balancing the use of power by the executive and overseeing the functioning of the State. In many countries this balance is off – with the executive and civil service seemingly unwilling to cede any real control to oversight or accountability mechanisms. Yet as a crucial component of the state architecture, parliaments share a responsibility to protect, respect and fulfill the State’s international human rights obligations. As elected representatives, parliamentarians have the responsibility to provide for the best interests of their constituents. However, in addition to this duty, parliaments are also ideally positioned to be leaders in ensuring that the State is not perpetrating human rights violations, that domestic law is not incompatible with human rights standards and in ensuring that human rights protections are in place.

The international organization for parliaments, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, with whom we will co-host the event in Geneva, has identified 7 common tools for parliamentary oversight: Committee hearings,
Hearings in plenary sittings, Inquiry commissions,
Question time,
Interpellations, and
the Ombudsman. These mechanisms are clearly lacking in many systems.A dedicated human rights mechanism– whether it is a committee, sub-committee or rapporteur, is required for all Parliaments. This mechanism, whatever its form, should have a clear goal. In our Outcome Document, we propose what such a goal might look like:

To help ensure increased compliance with human rights and a better life for all the people in this country through publicly examining existing or potential human rights deficits identified by parliamentarians, international organisations, the National Human Rights Institution, Civil Society Organisations, the media, the public, victims, whistleblowers and others; making proposals on areas for change or improvement; and calling the government to account for failures to protect the rights of the people of this country.

A clear goal for a parliamentary human rights mechanism would help to provide focus, purpose and clarity to its work. In addition to any mechanism, parliamentarians also have individual responsibilities. Parliamentarians should ensure they are educated on human rights standards, and aware of human rights issues. For both the mechanism and individual parliamentarians, there must be engagement with independent oversight bodies in the state as well as with Civil Society Organisations and victims’ groups. Parliamentarians should take personal responsibility for the promotion of specific human rights issues, particularly those relevant to their constituents. We hope that the proposals we put forward in Geneva this week can contribute to promoting much needed change in this area in Parliaments around the world.


Philippa Webb and Kirsten Roberts are co-investigators of a research project on Effective Parliamentary Oversight of Human Rights, funded by the King’s Policy Institute:


(Suggested citation: P.Webb and K. Roberts, ‘How can parliamentary oversight of human rights be made more effective? Report to be launched in Geneva this week.’  U.K. Const. L. Blog (24th June 2014) (available at