Similarities and Differences between
National Institutions and Human Rights NGOs

The establishment of a national institution for human rights in Bahrain in November 2009 constitutes a huge leap in the path of human rights. For ordinary people in Bahrain, the establishment of a national institution has raised a number of questions particularly with regard to differences and similarities between local organizations already operating in the Bahrain arena for several years, and between the newly established national institution for human rights. This development has created confusion on the one hand and raised expectations of some people unrealistically on the other hand. This article contributes to understanding the distinction between governmental and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), particularly the difference between the National Institution for Human Rights (NIHR) and other human rights organizations (societies) in Bahrain.

Human rights organizations have different names including “institutions”, “societies” and “associations”. Such different names are used interchangeably. What always matters is how to establish a human rights body, its mission and objectives, the extent of its financial and administrative independence, and the extent of its actual impact in the promotion and protection of human rights in the country concerned.

Generally speaking, human rights organizations are divided into two categories: governmental organizations, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)

We will start with NGOs because they are the most visible and prominent in the human rights arena and the public arena as well. NGOs exist in many countries of the world. NGOs are formed from groups of volunteers on voluntary basis. They are not for profit-making, they are created and managed by people with common interests and goals, both at the local level (i.e. within a single state) or at the international level (i.e. between several States or people from different countries). Both local and global NGOs are private associations working to promote and protect universally recognized human rights principles and values. The mission, objectives and tasks of human rights NGOs evolve around the protection of human rights, and people in charge of them perform voluntary work.

NGOs are divided into two categories: local NGOs (such as the Bahrain Human Rights Society, and Bahrain Human Rights Monitor) and international NGOs (such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Transparency International, etc.). All NGOs, local and global, are governed by basic law, i.e. a constitution, that defines its mission, vision, objectives, the scope of its mandates, and how they are managed and financed.

In this sense, these organizations are not linked to any government or to any of its organs or institutions. Governments do not make laws and regulations for such organizations, nor do they fund them or exercise control over their activities. They are fully independent from any government influence. Thus, NGOs are built on the personal efforts of individuals who believe and work for the promotion and protection of human rights without financial gain. They also depend heavily on self-financing of its members in addition to donations from supporters away from any government influence. NGOs do not accept contributions from government agencies (except in very limited cases and in accordance with strict conditions) in order to preserve its neutrality. But that does not prevent the existence of cooperation and coordination between human rights NGOs and some ministries and governmental bodies and institutions interested in human rights issues.

Local NGOs

NGOs work within a state for the promotion and protection of human rights in various fields: political, economic, social, cultural and development, as well as the promotion and protection of the rights of women and children. They are established in accordance with the laws prevailing in the State, which regulate registration and the work of local NGOs. We will take the Bahrain Human Rights Society (BHRS) as example of local human rights NGOs. The BHRS was founded in 2001. It enjoys cooperative relations with regional and international human rights organizations; it is a member of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), the International Coalition for the International Criminal Court (ICC), and works closely with the OHCHR.

International NGOs

International human rights NGOs are organizations or associations or institutions that cross borders and their activities cover more than one country. They are global bodies entrusted with the task of promoting respect for and protection of human rights throughout the world. Some of them are membership-based organizations, such as Amnesty International, which has more than two million members across the world, and has functioning groups in Bahrain. International NGOs influence international life and politics because of their good reputation, integrity and impartiality. The reports of international NGOs are very influential to the extent that states cannot ignore them.

Mechanisms of NGOs

Local and international human rights NGOs adopt varied mechanisms depending on the situation, including:

1. Issuance of reports, studies and statements to expose human rights violations.

2. Receive complaints from citizens concerning human rights violations.

3. Organize training courses and publish newsletters and pamphlets to raise awareness about human rights.

4. Provide legal aid on issues related to human rights.

5. Establish close ties with local, regional and international institutions interested in human rights.

6. Campaign on specific violations in order to draw the attention of local public opinion and the international community to them, and urge the government concerned to correct the situation.

7. Lobby the government, diplomatically and domestically, to address specific violations.

8. Promote a human rights culture through human rights education programmes.

Relationship between the Government and NGOs

Relations between governments and NGOs are always tense with regard to human rights, because human rights NGOs monitor actions of the government and its employees and expose human rights violations in order to create public opinion at the local, regional and international levels to address the situation, hold violators accountable, and compensate the victims. The greater the violations in a State, the greater and the larger role played by human rights NGOs.

In many countries around the world human rights NGOs collaborate with governments to strengthen the legal protection of human rights and the development of legal frameworks and mechanisms of justice and the judiciary. Human rights NGOs also contribute in capacity building activities for law enforcement agencies such as the police, prisons officers and the armed forces, on the promotion and respect for human rights for the police, detention centres, prisons and during armed conflicts.

Governments request some advice from human rights NGOs with regard to the development of strategies of human rights education and with regard to some related areas, especially when developing a national strategy to promote and protect human rights. The promotion of positive relations between governments and human rights NGOs, both locally and internationally, helps to bridge gaps and strengthen the means of human rights protection in the country concerned.

Relationship between NGOs and the United Nations

Local and international human rights NGOs play an important role in the UN system through the enjoyment of consultative status in the Economic and Social Council of the UN (ECOSOC). This status is not automatic, but only acquired after meeting a number of conditions, including: that the objectives of these NGOs must be in accordance with the spirit, objectives and principles of the UN Charter. Thereafter, the NGOs have the right to attend as an observer at meetings of the ECOSOC, the Human Rights Council and their affiliates. They can also submit written statements that can be circulated as official documents, and they can make oral statements, as well as providing information about the human rights violations in a specific country.

Governmental Organizations (GOs)

The UN system imposes on States to form national institutions for human rights in order to promote and protect human rights. With this understanding, such institutions are “governmental organizations” working in the human rights field. The establishment of national institutions for human rights should be in accordance with the Principles Relating to the Status of National Institutions (The Paris Principles) adopted by the General Assembly of the UN in December 1993. The Paris Principles are the main source for the establishment of national institutions for human rights and have developed frameworks to help national institutions to achieve independence, reflect societal pluralism, be accessible to people, and achieve functional independence etc.

In line with the UN resolution on the establishment of institutions at the national level to contribute to the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and increasing public awareness about such rights and freedoms, many states have complied with that resolution, including some Arab countries, which have established national institutions such as: the Advisory Council for Human Rights in Morocco, the National Council for Human Rights in Egypt, the National Centre for Human Rights in Jordan etc.

In November 2009, the King of Bahrain Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa issued a Royal Decree No. (46) 2009 establishing the National Institution for Human Rights in accordance with the Paris Principles. The Royal Decree provides for the national institution to be independent and operate freely and impartially. The Decree also includes mechanisms to select members of the institution, its objectives, organizational procedures regulating its work, financial resources, etc.

The main differences

The National Institution for Human Rights in Bahrain is still under establishment. However, it is not expected that its working mechanisms will differ from the mechanisms used by human rights NGOs within and outside Bahrain, with minor exceptions.

The greatest differences between local and international human rights NGOs on the one hand, and the Bahrain National Institution for Human Rights on the other hand, include: the powers of the National Institution for Human Rights will be limited in terms of receiving complaints, as well as issuing reports critical of any possible human rights violations in Bahrain; the National Institution for Human Rights will not be able to carry out advocacy campaigns or dissemination of public statements critical of possible violations.

Another difference is that the National Institution for Human Rights will receive the necessary financial support from the Government in contrast to NGOs, where the latter rely on membership subscriptions, donations, grants and unconditional funding from regional and international organizations.

Moreover, the National Institution for Human Rights will not acquire the advisory status in ECOSOC because it is a governmental institution and will be part of the government delegation when any reports concerning the human rights situation in Bahrain are reviewed and discussed in the relevant committees or the Human Rights Council.