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Effective Parliamentary Oversight of Human Rights

As both the fundamental protector of the rights of its citizens, and the entity most able to commit grave violations of human rights, the State is crucial in the protection of human rights. Parliaments are crucial components of the State structure, responsible for ensuring the adoption of legislation and monitoring and controlling overreaches of the executive. As such, they are in a unique position to oversee the protection of human rights within the State. 
Dr Philippa Webb is a lecturer in Public International Law at King’s College London, researching human rights and national law. Kirsten Roberts is undertaking her PhD at King’s, examining the effectiveness of National Human Rights Institutions in her research. Both authors have a wealth of academic and practical experience in human rights, and the interaction between international and municipal law, and have drawn upon this experience in recommending strategies for the implementation of effective parliamentary oversight of international human rights standards. The Effective Parliamentary Oversight of Human Rights Project also draws on expertise from leading academics, policy-makers and legal practitioners from nine jurisdictions to explore the role of parliaments in the oversight of human rights. 
During their eighteen-month project, the authors considered the role that domestic parliaments have, and can potentially have, in the protection of human rights. All too often, parliaments are unable to balance the use of power by the executive and the oversight of the functioning of the State because the Executive and State institutions are unwilling to cede control of oversight or accountability to parliaments. 
The full potential of parliaments to effectively oversee and protect human rights is therefore not being fully realised. The project found that Parliaments must be willing to create a designated human rights mechanism in order to fully achieve their potential as overseers of human rights standards. 
There are such mechanisms and tools available within the international legal order that could be used to increase the effectiveness of national human rights oversight, such as the rapporteur system, committees or inquiry commissions (see for example the Inter-Parliamentary Union report on Tools for Parliamentary Oversight [pdf]). As well these methods, independent National Human Rights Institutions are ideally placed to work in tandem with parliaments for the oversight of human rights within the national legal system. National systems must measure the goals of their oversight system, for example increased visibility of human rights issues, increased accountability for unlawful behavior and the conferral of democratic legitimacy upon human rights norms. 
In June 2014, the authors presented their findings at a side-event at the UN Human Rights Council in a joint meeting with the International Parliamentary Union and Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, chaired by the Ambassador of Uruguay. The project proposed a framework for how parliaments can be more effective in their human rights oversight. On the same day as a resolution was passed acknowledging the role of parliaments in the implementation of international human rights in national law and in its oversight. 
The next steps involve applying the framework to a specific case study to measure impact on the ground. An academic article on the Project’s findings will also be forthcoming in 2015.
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