Institutions & Organisations Polity & Governance

NHRC – composition , functions and role in safeguarding human rights

“It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings” -Mahatma Gandhi

[su_highlight background=”#12faf9″]History [/su_highlight]

The UN Commission on Human Rights formulated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). UDHR was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. Although the UDHR was a non-binding resolution, it is now considered to have acquired the force of international customary which may be invoked in appropriate circumstances by national and other judiciaries. The UDHR urges member nations to promote a number of human, civil, economic and social rights. The adoption of the Universal Declaration is a significant international commemoration marked each year on 10 December, and is known as Human Rights Day or International Human Rights Day. The theme of this year’s Human Rights Day – “Human Rights 365” encompasses the idea that every day is Human Rights Day and everybody at all times is entitled to the full range of human rights.

The international community has recognised the growing importance of strengthening national human rights institutions. In this context, in the year 1991 a UN-sponsored meeting of representatives of national institutions held in Paris, a detailed set of principles on the status of national institutions was developed, these are commonly known as the Paris Principles. These principles, became the foundation for the establishment and operation of national human rights institutions.

In the wake of these developments, India, enacted the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993, with a view to bring about greater accountability and strengthen the dominion of human rights in the country. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) was established on October 12, 1993. Its statute is contained in the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993, and is in conformity with the Paris Principles. States, 23 of them, have set up their own human rights commissions under the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993 to deal with violations from within their states.

So, what exactly does this NHRC do? What all it can do? Read further to find out..

[su_highlight background=”#12faf9″]Features of NHRC[/su_highlight]

• NHRC was constituted under Section 3 of the 1993 Act for better protection of human rights. The term ‘human rights’ is defined in Section 2(d) of the 1993 Act, which reads as follows:

“2. (d) “Human rights” means the rights relating to life, liberty, equality and dignity of the individual guaranteed by the Constitution or embodied in the International Covenants and enforceable by courts in India.”

• It is autonomous i.e. it has been created by an Act of Parliament.
• NHRC is committed to provide independent views on issues within the parlance of the Constitution or in law for the time being enforced for the protection of human rights. The Commission takes an  independent stand.
• NHRC has the powers of a civil court.
• Authority to grant interim relief
• Authority to recommend payment of compensation or damages
• Over seventy thousand complaints received every year reflects the credibility of the Commission and the trust reposed in it by the citizens.
• NHRC has a very wide mandate
• NHRC has unique mechanism with which it also monitors implementation of its various recommendations.

[su_highlight background=”#12faf9″]Composition of NHRC[/su_highlight]

UPSC loves these. Who is the member of the XYZ commission. Time to brush up core polity!

The act lays down the qualifications that the members are required to have, to be eligible to be appointed to the Commission.
Section 3 of the Act lays down that the Commission shall consist of:

  • A Chairperson
  • One Member who is, or has been, a Judge of the Supreme Court of India
  • One Member who is, or has been, the Chief Justice of a High Court
  • Two Members to be appointed from among persons having knowledge of, or practical experience in, matters relating to human rights
  • In addition, the Chairpersons of four National Commissions of ( 1.Minorities 2.SC 3.ST 4.Women) serve as ex officio members.

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[su_highlight background=”#12faf9″]Appointment and Removal[/su_highlight]

The Chairperson and the Members of the Commission are appointed by the President of India, on the recommendations of a Committee consisting of:

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The chairman and members hold office for a term of five years or until they attain the age of 70 years, whichever is earlier.
After their tenure, the chairman and members are not eligible for further employment under the central or state government.
The president can remove the chairman or any member from the office under certain circumstances.
Now that I have told you about the nut bolt of NHRC, let us get on to read, what exactly it is empowered to do.

[su_highlight background=”#12faf9″]Functions and Powers of Commission[/su_highlight]

The Commission performs the following functions, namely:

Inquire, suo motu or on a petition presented to it by a victim or any person on his behalf, into complaint of

a) violation of human rights – this is extremely obvious
b) negligence in the prevention of such violation, by a public servant.
c) intervene in any proceeding involving any allegation of violation of human rights pending before a court with the approval of such court.
d) visit, under intimation to the State Government, any jail or any other institution under the control of the State Government, where persons are detained or lodged for purposes of treatment, reformation or protection to study the living conditions of the inmates and make recommendations.
e) review the safeguards provided by or under the Constitution or any law for the time being in force for the protection of human rights and recommend measures for their effective implementation.
f) review the factors, including acts of terrorism that inhibit the enjoyment of human rights and recommend appropriate remedial measures.
g) study treaties and other international instruments on human rights and make recommendations for their effective implementation.
h) undertake and promote research in the field of human rights.
i) spread human rights literacy among various sections of society and promote awareness of the safeguards available for the protection of these rights through publications, the media, seminars and other available means.
j) encourage the efforts of non-governmental organisations and institutions working in the field of human rights.

A State Commission may inquire into violation of human rights only in respect of matters in the State list and Concurrent list.

[su_highlight background=”#12faf9″]Major Human Rights issues in India[/su_highlight]

Nobody can deny the humongous magnitude of human right violations taking place in our country.  The world’s largest democracy is plagued by widespread violations. I have listed a few major issues which are taken up by NHRC.

  • Custodial Torture
  • Right to Work and Labour Rights
  • Extrajudicial Killings
  • Arbitrary Arrest and Detention
  • Excessive Powers of the Armed Forces and the Police
  • Sexual Violence
  • Conflict Induced Internal Displacement
  • Child Labour
  • Manual Scavenging
  • Violence and discrimination against Women, Children
  • Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Rights
  • Problems faced by Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, Religious Minorities, Persons with Disabilities


[su_highlight background=”#12faf9″]Role of NHRC in safeguarding human rights[/su_highlight]

Since its formation, the NHRC has widely dealt with issues relating to application of human rights. NHRC has established its reputation for independence and integrity. There is an ever-increasing number of complaints addressed to the Commission seeking redressal of grievancesThe NHRC has pursued its mandate and priorities with determination and considerable success.

Some of the famous interventions of NHRC include campaigns against discrimination of HIV patients. It also has asked all State Governments to report the cases of custodial deaths or rapes within 24 hours of occur­rence failing which it would be assumed that there was an attempt to suppress the incident. An important intervention of the Commission was related to Nithari Village in Noida, UP, where children were sexually abused and murdered. Recenlty, NHRC helped bring out in open a multi crore pension scam in Haryana. It also is looking up the sterilization tragedy of Chattisgarh.

In spite of many achievements, the NHRC has been marred with controversies. For instance, the Batla House encounter case in the recent past. The Commission’s report giving clean chit to the Delhi Police came under fire from various quarters. It was said that the Commission had failed to conduct a proper inquiry as its officials never visited the site and filed a report on the basis on the police version.

[su_highlight background=”#12faf9″] Limitations of the Commission[/su_highlight]

  • NHRC can only make recommendations, without the power to enforce decisions. This lack of authority to ensure compliance can lead to outright rejection of its decision too.
  • It is often viewed as a post-retirement destinations for judges, police officers and bureaucrats with political clout. Bureaucratic functioning, inadequacy of funds also hamper the working of the commission.
  • Under the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993, human rights commissions cannot investigate an event if the complaint was made more than one year after the incident. Therefore, a large number of genuine grievances go unaddressed.

[su_highlight background=”#12faf9″] Suggestions ?[/su_highlight]

  • If human rights commissions are to truly protect rights in India, it needs a revamp.
  • The efficacy of commissions will be greatly enhanced if their decisions are made enforceable by the government.
  • If commissions are to play a meaningful role in society, they must include civil society human rights activists as members.
  • Misuse of laws by the law enforcing agencies is often the root cause of human right violations. So, the weakness of laws should be removed and those laws should be amended or repealed, if they run contrary to human rights.

The situation of persistent human rights violations across the country presents manifold challenges. As Chairman Justice K G Balakrishnan pointed out, to improve and strengthen the human rights situation Human Right defenders, state and non state actors need to work in tandem. As citizens, we should treat all as equal, remember our duties U/A. 51A, and above all have respect for humanity !

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