HRP Hosts Program on Giving Teeth to Human Rights Treaties


On November 12th, 2007, the Human Rights Program at the Harvard Law School hosted Professor Brian Burdekin, former Special Advisor on National Institutions to the first three UN High Commissioners of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Burdekin teaches at the Melbourne University Law School, and is currently a Visiting Professor at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute in Sweden.

The UN sits at the heart of the global effort to free hundreds of millions of human beings who suffer from human rights abuses, such as the 250 million children who are forced to give up their education to work and those who suffer from sexual predation. Beginning with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the UN has actively promoted numerous agreements on human rights. The UN Commission on Human Rights holds the power to investigate and issue reports that expose abuses of human rights.

The mission of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) is to protect or monitor human rights in a given country. During his post as Special Advisor, from 1995 to 2003, Burdekin conducted over two hundred missions to fifty-five global countries. Known as the leading expert on NHRIs and holding a deep background in Foreign Service, Burdekin currently serves an International Advisor to numerous NHRIs in Asia, Africa, Central Europe and Eastern Europe.

From 1990 to 1991, Burdekin was one of the key figures involved in drafting the 1993 Paris Principles, the UN principles prescribing the minimum standards for National Human Rights Institutions. For example, all institutions are required to be independent, include both women and men, publicize human rights and efforts to combat all forms of racial discrimination, cooperate with the United Nations system, and draw the attention of the Government to situations in any part of the country where human rights are violated. Although every human rights issue is politically sensitive, NHRIs are apolitical.

National Human Rights Institutions can use their power to make recommendations to authorities, propose amendments or reforms to the law, gather evidence, conduct annual status reports, convey information to the public through any press organ, monitor organizations (e.g. prisons), conduct research, educated, advise, and interact with the judiciary. Institutions may meet on a regular basis and establish working groups that assist in discharging its functions. Giving teeth to National Human Rights Institutions involves working very closely with NGOs. Institutions must also develop relations with NGOs to combat racism, to protect vulnerable groups such as children and the mentally disabled, and to promote and protect human rights, economic development, and social development. Additionally, National Human Rights Institutions are authorized to address cases brought before them by individuals, representatives, or third parties.

Burdekin reflected upon his home country, Australia, an extremely wealthy country that has a common law system and, yet, did not hold many human rights treaties. According to Burdekin, Australian common law was very sophisticated because it is based on the international legal framework. However, if one looked at the way common law addresses the aboriginal people in Australia, the most vulnerable and the most disadvantaged people, the ethnic or linguistic minorities, and the mentally disabled, common law approached disaster.

According to Burdekin, who has been involved with treaties dealing with people with mental disabilities, all human beings hold the right to health, the right to housing and the right to adequate resources. The mentally disabled particularly suffer from discrimination based on fear and ignorance: they have been unfairly stereotyped to be dangerous people; however, in reality, only a minute percentage are dangerous.

During a phone interview, Burdekin expressed very strongly that the Harvard Law School community is a group of people who are among the most privileged in the world in terms of their excellent education and their education in human rights. He explained that those of us who have had the opportunity and the benefit of a brilliant Harvard education hold a commensurate and enormous responsibility to use their education in the fight for human rights. For example, those with a background in international law may apply to join the staff of the National Human Rights Commission and develop strategies to bring national legislation into conformity with international human rights treaties, such as the Convention on Torture and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. At the same time, there are many in the Harvard community who will not work in academia or government, but nevertheless care a great deal about human rights issues in the world. The most important development over the last thirty to forty years, apart from the human rights treaties, was the tremendous growth of NGOs in virtually every country.

Burdekin encourages the community to join human rights NGOs and NHRIs in order to influence and give teeth to existing legal systems on human rights. Further information on NHRIs can be found on

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