There are alternatives to going to court to hold police forces and/or organisations accountable for human rights abuses. Think about whether any of the following could be appropriate for you.
NHRIs are independent institutions which have responsibility for the protection, monitoring and promotion of human rights in a country.
For more details on such organisations, please see the Asia Pacific Forum’s Fact Sheet on NHRIs.
A list of the names of the NHRIs in different countries can be found at the OHCHR website.
NHRIs do not make legally binding judgments like a court but can launch inquiries into human rights issues. The publicity from NHRI complaints and inquiries can raise awareness and put pressure on governments and corporations to change their actions.
Some NHRIs can also hear individual complaints to NHRIs from individuals, their representatives, third parties or NGOs. The exact sequence of steps will vary depending upon which NHRI you bring your complaint to but generally complaint handling follows similar steps including the following:
NRHI will receive your complaint.
NHRIs will generally have powers necessary to conduct an investigation into a complaint. Steps taken in connection with an investigation can include: - Taking evidence from victims and witnesses; - Questioning witnesses; - Obtaining documents and information; and - Entering premises to conduct inspections.
Some NHRIs are required to try to resolve complaints by agreement between the person making the complaint and the person about whom the complaint has been made. "Conciliation" is the term for this process. However, not every human rights complaint can be resolved by conciliation nor is every complaint appropriate for it. NHRIs need to keep the wellbeing and needs of the victim in mind as a priority.
Complaints to the NHRI do not generally conclude with a binding judgement and enforceable order for remedies. The reports usually outline the NHRIs findings and make recommendations. Alternatively, the NHRI may refer cases to ordinary courts. When referring a case to a court, NHRIs may prepare a report which sets out the type of complaint, how the NHRI has handled it and the process and results of any investigations carried out in connection with it. In some cases, NHRIs may assist you in bringing your case to court.
In addition to complaints to regional human rights courts and UN treaty bodies, there are other international human rights bodies which work on issues of arrest and detention. The most important IHRB for arbitrary detention is the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which reviews around 100 cases annually (although each case may concern multiple individuals).
Focus Point: How do I make a complaint?
You or your family, representatives or a non-governmental organisation taking up your case, can contact the Working Group directly using a model questionnaire available online, although this is not obligatory, and any contact will be considered.
Your letter should not exceed 20 pages, and additional material may not be taken into account. As far as possible, you should include:
- the date and place of your arrest, detention or deprivation of liberty and identity of those presumed to have carried it out;
- any information shedding light on the circumstances of your arrest;
- the reasons given by the authorities for your arrest, detention or deprivation of liberty;
- the legislation applied in your case;
- the action taken by local administrative and judicial authorities, and any steps taken at international or regional level, as well as the results of such action or reasons why measures were ineffective or not taken;
- an account of the reasons why your deprivation is deemed arbitrary; and
- a report of any other elements of your case that will allow the Working Group to understand your situation, such as trial dates or incarceration conditions.
You will not need to have used up all of your local options prior to contacting the Working Group.
The Working Group will then forward your communication to the Government concerned with its comments and observations on your allegations. They will raise facts and applicable legislation and request a response from your government within 60 days. An extension of up to two months may be granted on the Government’s request. Your identity will not be disclosed.
When a reply is received, it will be forwarded to you to provide any final comments. If a reply is not provided, the Working Group will take a position on the case.
After considering all information, they will then take one of the following measures:
- Provide an opinion that your detention was arbitrary and make recommendations to the government;
- Issue an opinion that your detention is not arbitrary;
- Keep your case pending until further information from the relevant Government is provided;
- If insufficient information can be obtained, it may file your case provisionally or definitively; or
Any opinion produced by the Working Group is sent to the relevant Government alongside their recommendations. These will be forwarded to you 48 hours after this occurs and will be published annually by the Working Group.
As with most UN processes, these recommendations cannot be directly enforced, but political pressure is put on the offending country.
All opinions are provided to the United Nations Human Rights Council (“UNHRC”), who will take them into account. The Working group will keep the UNHRC updated with any developments. Refusal to comply with recommendations may lead to further action being taken at an international political level. Unfortunately, states do not always acknowledge or implement recommendations.
It may also be possible to use the urgent action procedure:
Focus Point: The Urgent Action Procedure
There is also an “urgent action” procedure where there are sufficiently reliable allegations that you are being detained arbitrarily, and your continued detention may pose serious danger to your health or life. The Working Group may use this procedure in other cases at its discretion.
When using this procedure, the working group will contact the Minister for Foreign Affairs of the relevant State requesting that appropriate measures be taken to ensure your right to life and that your physical and mental integrity are respected. However, these appeals are only humanitarian in nature and will not impact the final assessment on whether your detention is actually arbitrary.
Complaints brought to IHRBs are also unlikely to provide an immediate resolution, but a finding in your favour can be a powerful tool putting pressure on a national government.
Campaigning can be a powerful way to raise awareness about injustice and put pressure on a government to change its actions. Campaigns can be used to help people be released when they are unlawfully arrested and to achieve accountability.
You could contact a national or international human rights groups who may launch a public campaign to push for your release. Examples include:
For more information on campaigns, see Campaigning on the A4J Going to Court: Q&A.