Human Rights Commissions and Religious Conflict in the Asia-Pacific Region

Posted: 30 Sep 2004

See all articles by Carolyn M. Evans

Carolyn M. Evans

University of Melbourne - Melbourne Law School


This paper explores the role of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRI) in the Asia-Pacific area in the promotion and protection of human rights. The Asia-Pacific is the only region not to have a regional human rights organization and States in the region have a low ratification rate for international human rights treaties. The rhetoric of the 'Asian values' or 'values in Asia' debate has challenged the appropriateness of 'Western' human rights values for the developing countries of Asia and some Asian leaders have spoken out against the imposition of human rights in Asia.

Despite this outward hostility to international human rights norms, however, over the last decade there has been a remarkable flourishing of NHRI in the Asia-Pacific region. The constitutive documents for these NHRI generally define human rights (and thus the mandate of the NHRI) by reference to international instruments and give NHRI an active role in government decision-making in regard to whether it should ratify further human rights treaties. The NHRI are not courts and tend not to have the power to make binding determinations, but they generally have the power to investigate complaints of breaches of rights, encourage mediation or report on violations, conduct education campaigns, visit prisons and promote human rights within the government and the community more generally. In order to be recognised by the United Nations as NHRI, they need to comply with the Paris Principles that require Commissioners to act independently of the government.

This paper explores the potential of these NHRI in the protection and promotion of human rights through a case-study of the way in which NHRI in India, Malaysia and the Philippines have dealt with the issue of religious freedom. Despite having similar mandates each NHRI has responded very differently to serious abuses of human rights that have arisen out of ethno-religious conflicts. The Malaysian Human Rights Commission has focused on dialogue between conflicting parties held behind closed doors; the Philippines Commission has taken on serious issues but dealt with them in such legalistic ways that it has hampered its own effectiveness; while the Indian Commission has been proactive, creative and forceful in dealing with crises in religious freedom. While the Indian example demonstrates that NHRI can have a real contribution to make to human rights protection, it also demonstrates that even a well-funded and well-respected body can only have a limited impact on human rights abuses, especially when that body does not have enforcement powers.

Keywords: National Human Rights Institutions, Asia-Pacific, human rights, international law, United Nations, India, Malaysia, Philipines

JEL Classification: K3, K30, K33, K39

Suggested Citation

Evans, Carolyn M., Human Rights Commissions and Religious Conflict in the Asia-Pacific Region. International and Comparative Law Quarterly, Vol. 53, pp. 713-729, 2004. Available at SSRN:

Carolyn M. Evans (Contact Author)

University of Melbourne - Melbourne Law School ( email )

University Square
185 Pelham Street, Carlton
Victoria, Victoria 3010
613 8344 1102 (Phone)
613 8344 9900 (Fax)

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