Human Rights in Parliament
In this section:
Committee on Human Rights of Parliamentarians
Taking a stance on human rights issues
Parliamentary work on human rights
Reconciliation in post-conflict situations
Partnerships and instruments
Related sections:
Promoting democracy
Partnership between men and women
Cooperation with the UN
Peace and security
Sustainable development
What is the IPU?


  Parliamentary work on human rights

As an organization that shares the United Nations concern for human rights, the Inter-Parliamentary Union seeks to strengthen the role of parliaments as guardians of human rights. It does so in the following ways:
red cubeIssue publications to familiarize parliamentarians with human rights standards and topics;
red cubeCompile and make available information on the functioning of parliamentary human rights committees;
red cubeOversee implementation of the UN Human Rights Treaties;
red cube Mobilize parliaments to fight against child trafficking and labour;
red cubeProvide support to parliamentary human rights committees and open an international platform for their members to share experiences and discuss common challenges;
red cubePromote and strengthen human rights through IPU's technical assistance projects.


The IPU publishes a wide variety of periodicals, books, reports and surveys, many of which deal with human rights. Of special importance are IPU handbooks addressed specifically to members of parliament who work on human rights.

Handbook on Human Rights In 2005, the IPU and Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights jointly published a Handbook on Human Rights for Parliamentarians, intended for parliamentarians who want to familiarize themselves with the framework that had been set up since 1945 by the United Nations and regional organizations to protect and promote human rights. The handbook presents the notion of human rights and the core contents of the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It specifies the obligations of States to protect and promote human rights, and contains suggestions as to action that parliaments and their members may take to contribute to their implementation.

Most IPU publications are free of charge and can be ordered directly from this website.


Visit PARLINE database Since the beginning of the 1990s, the IPU has been compiling information on the role, structure, functioning and contact details of parliamentary human rights committees. This information is now accessible on-line in the form of an electronic directory of parliamentary human rights bodies, which is an integral part of the IPU's PARLINE database. Information in this database is updated regularly. The on-line directory aims to foster a better understanding of the way in which human rights are dealt with in each parliament and to strengthen contacts and partnerships between parliaments and the human rights community.

A corresponding archive covering roughly the last ten years is available in the form of a publication entitled World Directory of Parliamentary Human Rights Bodies, the last issue of which dates back to 2004.


Seminar in Mauritania: Click on the photo to enlarge it Committed to the goal of professionalization and improvement of parliamentary bodies specializing in the promotion and defence of human rights, the IPU has launched, in collaboration with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), a pilot project to promote the role of parliamentarians from French-speaking African countries in the implementation of the UN Human Rights Treaties. This project is financed by the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF).

The project aims to:

red cubeDevelop the knowledge by parliamentarians of the human rights treaties and create parliamentary expertise in this field;
red cubeStrengthen the capacity and involvement of parliaments in the preparation of national reports to the UN treaty bodies, as well as in the implementation of their concluding observations;
red cubeIncrease the number of ratifications of international and regional human rights treaties.

Seminar in Mali: click on the photo to enlarge it Two series of national-level seminars were held in the four African countries participating in the project, namely: Mali, Mauritania, Republic of Congo, and Togo. The seminars aimed to improve, with the collaboration of other stakeholders, the implementation of the concluding observations and recommendations of the treaty bodies through strengthening of parliamentary competences.

Summaries of proceedings of the seminars held thus far are available on-line (mostly in French language only):

red cubeThe Parliament of the Republic of the Congo and human rights treaty bodies: strategies for enhanced collaborationBrazzaville (Congo)
23-25 July 2008
red cubeThe role of the Mauritanian Parliament in the work of human rights treaty bodiesNouakchott (Mauritania)
12-14 May 2008
red cubeThe role of Malian parliamentarians in the preparation of the national reports to the treaty bodies and in the follow-up of their recommendationsBamako (Mali)
26-28 February 2008
red cubeBetter participation of Togolese parliamentarians in the work of United Nations treaty bodiesLomé (Togo)
13-15 February 2008

The project also includes the holding of two regional seminars:

red cubeEnhanced regional parliamentary cooperation with human rights treaty bodiesLibreville (Gabon)
4-6 March 2009
red cubeThe role of parliaments in the implementation of international and regional human rights instruments                                                           Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso)
1-3 October 2007


Child labour in Africa The fight against child trafficking and labour calls for a greater mobilization of stakeholders through concerted action and harmonized strategies with a view to targeted action.

To this end, the IPU partnered with the Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC-OECD), with funding from the Belgian Government, to launch a project on parliament’s contribution to the fight against child trafficking and labour for economic purposes.

The project seeks to:

red cubeEncourage ratification of regional and international instruments on human trafficking and the worst forms of child labour;
red cubePut in place appropriate legal mechanisms throughout the process that take into consideration the human rights of the victims of trafficking, prohibit the recruitment of children for purposes of economic exploitation and crack down on traffickers;
red cubeset up a parliamentary body tasked with monitoring, following up and evaluating implementation.

The project will be implemented in four phases, two of which have already been concluded. A regional conference organized in Benin in May 2010, drew up a roadmap that contains guidelines for parliamentary action. Subsequently, national seminars were held in Burkina Faso in September 2010, in Togo in November 2010, and in Gabon in April 2011.

Conclusions and recommendations of these seminars are available on-line:

red cubeNational Seminar "Strengthening the capacity of Gabonese parliamentarians for consolidating an environment conducive to the fight against child trafficking and labour"
[ Summary ] [ Plan of Action ]
Libreville (Gabon)
27-28 April 2011
red cubeNational Seminar "Expand parliamentary action for improved results in the fight against child trafficking in Togo"
[ Summary ] [ Plan of Action ]
Lomé (Togo)
23-24 November 2010
red cubeNational Seminar "The decisive contribution of parliament to the fight against child trafficking in Burkina Faso"
[ Conclusions ] [ Plan of Action ]
Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso)
21-22 September 2010
red cubeRegional Conference "Towards enhanced parliamentary action to combat the trafficking of children for purposes of labour exploitation in West and Central Africa"
[ Cotonou Declaration ]
Cotonou (Benin)
24-26 May 2010


Since 2004, the IPU, together with its United Nations partners, has started a series of yearly meetings to allow members of parliamentary human rights bodies to exchange views, compare the mandates, functioning and working methods of their respective committees, discuss challenges and identify best practices, with the ultimate aim of strengthening the effectiveness of parliament's human rights work.

Parliamentary work is carried out mainly in committees, which are the "engine rooms" where legislative proposals are studied, government departments are scrutinized and recommendations are made to the plenary. In practice, parliaments have adopted one of the three following approaches to integrate human rights into their committee work.

The mandate, organization and working methods of parliamentary human rights bodies differ greatly. While some have advisory roles, others carry out important monitoring functions and may receive individual complaints. While some deal with human rights at the domestic level only, others address human rights issues mainly in other countries. Likewise, their relationship and cooperation with other parliamentary bodies, governmental and administrative bodies and other national human rights institutions vary to a great extent. This has considerable consequences for the impact of their work.

red cube Human rights as a cross-cutting issue
Petition committees

The right to petition is at least as old as the institution of parliament itself. It has even been argued that the Parliament in the United Kingdom originated in meetings of the King’s Council where petitions were considered. In France, the right to petition parliament for redress of grievances has existed almost permanently since the French Revolution. With the increase in the influence and importance of parliaments, petitioning parliament became one of the main methods of airing grievances, so that parliaments had to set up special committees to cope with the ever increasing number of petitions. These committees can be considered as the first "human rights" committees as their aim was -- and still is -- to redress injustice.
The first approach considers human rights as a cross-cutting issue that should be taken into account by each parliamentary committee precisely because, in the final analysis, each parliamentary committee is a "human rights committee" and has to deal with human rights issues. This is, for example, the approach which the parliaments of South Africa, Denmark and New Zealand have followed, although such parliaments have often also set up committees dealing with specific human rights issues, such as women's and children's rights.

red cube An exclusive human rights mandate
The second approach is based on the belief that the establishment of a parliamentary committee with an exclusive human rights mandate sends a strong political message not only to the people, but also to the Government and other state bodies. Parliaments that follow this approach consider that such a committee provides an effective means of ensuring that human rights issues are indeed taken into account by all other parliamentary committees, and that specific human rights expertise exists within parliament, thus making it more independent from governmental expertise.

red cube Intermediate solutions
Most parliaments have opted for an intermediate solution, which consists of adding human rights to another issue, such as justice or constitutional affairs. From the surveys undertaken by the IPU since 1990, it appears that the number of genuine human rights committees, or committees that deal exclusively with human rights, has remained relatively small, whereas the number of parliaments in which committees are entrusted inter alia with human rights has steadily risen.

Why establish a parliamentary human rights committee?

The IPU has consistently recommended to member parliaments to establish parliamentary human rights committees as a way to ensure that human rights issues are given the full and continuous attention they deserve in the work of parliament. The argument for the creation of such a body is eloquently made in the following example.

The example of Canada

In his foreword to the second report of the Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights, entitled Promises to Keep: Implementing Canada's Human Rights Obligations of December 2001, the Committee's chair outlines the reasons which led to the establishment of a Senate committee dealing exclusively with human rights. The Committee "will provide a unique interface between government and non-governmental actors in the human rights field, and its work will allow parliamentarians to deepen their knowledge of human rights issues. It will thereby help to ensure that human rights issues receive the concentrated attention they merit and that all parliamentarians are better able to fulfil their responsibility to protect and promote such rights". In chapter II, the report states that "because Parliament as a whole is a generalist body and must address a variety of policy imperatives, it is vital that any enhanced role for Parliament in human rights be structured so as to ensure that human rights do not get lost in the shuffle, but are instead the subject of focused attention". The report further draws attention to the fact that "the creation of a parliamentary committee for human rights also has the potential to give a greater sense of urgency to human rights issues and gives visible encouragement to those within and outside government who are working to give human rights a greater priority in the public policy agenda".

Apart from petition committees, which have a long parliamentary tradition and are in fact the first "human rights" committees, modern parliamentary committees with an exclusive human rights mandate were created in the early 1980s in South America. Since then, parliaments all over the world have slowly but steadily followed the example.


The IPU operates a technical cooperation programme under which it assists national parliaments, particularly in developing countries, to improve the organization of their work and strengthen their infrastructure. The programme focuses on strengthening the parliamentary institution itself, as well as providing assistance to elected parliamentarians and parliamentary staff. Special attention is paid to the human rights perspective.