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NHRC vacancies to be filled up without due process? Petition to Kovind opposes move

Counterview Desk 

The All India Network of NGOs and individuals working with National and State Human Rights Institutions (AiNNI)) has sought to draw the attention of President Ram Nath Kovind on the reported Government of India move to fill up vacancies among the first rung of leadership in National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) without following legal provisions and international norms.
As these vacancies are long pending, certain recent media articles attributing to anonymous sources, have cited names of some recently retired Supreme Court judges as probable candidates preferred by the government for NHRC Chairperson, says the petition to the President, for which signatures were sought from social activists and individuals across India.
The suggestion of preferential candidates being considered in the absence of a formal process undermines the independence and credibility of the NHRC, the petition says.

Text:

We write to draw your urgent attention to the long-pending vacancies at the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). We write to request you to intervene to ensure that the members of the appointment committee initiate a transparent process that considers all eligible candidates, review their record, experience, and contributions to human rights, and assess them on criteria and indicators which draw from accepted human rights standards.
Section 3 (2) of the Protection of Human Rights (Amendment) Act, 2019 (PHRA) requires that the NHRC has a Chairperson who has been a Chief Justice or Judge of the Supreme Court; one Member who is or has been a Judge of the Supreme Court; one Member who is or has been a Chief Justice of a High Court; and three Members, out of which at least one shall be a woman, having knowledge of or practical experience in matters relating to human rights.
As of May 6, 2021, the NHRC consists of just three members – one judicial and two non-judicial members. The post of the Chairperson has been vacant for five months till date since the retirement of Justice (retd.) HL Dattu in December 2020, position for one judicial member is vacant since the retirement of Justice (retd) D Murugesan in September 2018 (2 years and 7 months), and the position for one non-judicial member is vacant since this position was created through an amendment in July 2019 (1 year and 9 months). NHRC Member Justice (retd.) PC Pant was appointed Acting Chairperson on April 25, 2021, as per Section 7 of the PHRA.
The effect of these long vacancies has been pointed out by Justice Pant himself and it is clear that with a monthly workload of near 10,000 complaints these vacancies have severely and negatively affected the responsiveness of the institution and its image in the public eye. It also allows for violations to continue and impunity to reign.
Section 4 of the PHRA requires a committee comprising the Prime Minister, Speaker of Lok Sabha, Deputy Speaker of Rajya Sabha, Union Minister of Home Affairs, and Leaders of Opposition in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha to send recommendations to you for appointments in the NHRC. There is no information in the public domain of this committee meeting after April 2019, i.e. for the last appointments made in the NHRC – Justice (retd) PC Pant and Dr Dnyaneshwar Manohar Mulay.
At this juncture, we note with concern certain media articles attributed to anonymous sources citing names of some recently retired Supreme Court judges as probable candidates preferred by the government for NHRC Chairperson. The suggestion of preferential candidates being considered in the absence of a formal process undermines the PHRA. Section 4 requires an impartial appointment process, based on objective criteria, entrusted to a high-level Committee, to determine the composition of the NHRC as spelled out in the PHRA. Even a minor indication of the government preferring a particular judge may compromise the independence of the judiciary and that of the NHRC.
Appointments to the NHRC must respect the fundamental principles of transparency and adherence to the accepted international standards and norms as laid down in the UN Paris Principles. We believe the prerequisite for the appointment committee to recommend names for NHRC Chairperson and Members is a process whereby it considers all eligible candidates and assesses them on objective criteria and indicators as provided for in the PHRA and consistent with international standards. The committee should strongly consider potential candidates’ records, experience, and contributions to human rights.
Appointments to NHRC must respect fundamental principles of transparency and adherence to accepted international standards
We point out that the UN Paris Principles on selection and appointment emphasize (a) a transparent process; (b) broad consultation throughout; (c) advertising vacancies broadly; and (d) maximizing the number of potential candidates from a wide range of societal groups. It also considers the pluralistic composition of an NHRC to be fundamentally linked to the requirement of independence, credibility, effectiveness, and accessibility.
NHRC’s international review and accreditation reports, undertaken by the Sub-Committee of Accreditation (SCA) of the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI), have repeatedly in 2011, 2016, and 2017 expressed concern about the lack of pluralism in NHRC. There has consistently been an inadequate representation of women, caste, tribe, and religious communities in NHRC’s leadership.
These reports also highlight the need for a transparent appointment process – advertisement of vacancies, assessing candidates on clear and uniform criteria, and holding broad consultations. According to the 2017 review report, “the NHRC has advocated (with the government) for changes to the selection process to include requirements to require the advertisement of vacancies and the establishment of clear and uniform criteria upon which to assess the merit of eligible applicants”.
We request your intervention with the appointment committee. Considering that the process followed is as important as the outcome, any shortcuts that suborn the process are detrimental to the independence and credibility of the NHRC. We urge that the needed appointments are made at the earliest with no further delay, on the basis of the required process and recommended human rights standards, with all efforts to be inclusive and transparent.

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