Toothless rights commission

THE Supreme Court of India directing greater involvement of the National Human Rights Commission in the on-going investigation into cases of alleged fake encounter killings in Manipur leaves no doubt that the apex court is determined to deliver justice to those who have been exterminated or are nursing physical and mental suffering due to excesses committed by security forces. The court means business and is driving home the message that those incidents associated with use of excessive or retaliatory force should face thorough probe. The latest decree of the court also reminds all that strengthening and empowering constitutionally mandated institutions such as the NHRC is necessary for upholding democracy and rule of law so as to instil a sense of security among the citizens. Rights organisations are not the panacea for all problems of the society or nation but the purpose of their existence need to be authenticated with proper funding, functional independence and institutional autonomy. It is nearly 15 years since the NHRC was established in India through the adoption of the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993, by the Parliament. The apex court’s directive also suggests that it is a good time to examine not only the functioning and effectiveness of the NHRC and the state HRCs but also to identify the central challenges relating to human rights in the future and work towards tackling them. It is important that these commissions succeed in their efforts to promote and protect human rights, especially in a state like Manipur that has been under AFSPA for the past many decades and allegations of human rights violation are rife.

In the past too, the Supreme Court had pointed out it does not augur well for a democratic country like India to have an NHRC which was helpless to redress human rights violations. The NHRC is an autonomous public body constituted under the Protection of Human Rights Ordinance, 1993 and was given a statutory basis by the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993. Interestingly, the NHRC had conceded to the court that it had no power to act against persons or authorities who did not follow the guidelines laid down by it nor did it have the power to issue directives or pass orders but could only make recommendations. It is an institution responsible for the protection and promotion of human rights relating to life, liberty, equality and dignity of the individual guaranteed by the Constitution or embodied in the International Covenants. While dealing with the alleged extra-judicial killings of 1528 persons in Manipur by police and central armed forces, the court proposed to examine the grievance of NHRC that it has become a toothless tiger. The court has proposed to consider the nature of guidelines issued by the NHRC – whether they are binding or only advisory, for NHRC is supposed to investigate human rights violation cases. The evidence collected is put to forensic judicial adjudication by its chairman and members, who are former judges. But at the end, when NHRC arrives at a finding, it can only recommend remedial measures or direct the state concerned to pay compensation. Regardless of its limited power, existence of a vibrant constitutionally approved rights body is very important for a state like Manipur where the common people continue to live under the impression that their lives are not secure at all.


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