Helen Clark on the Bangladesh National Human Rights Commissions Regional Forum

13 Nov 2010

13 November 2010, 12:15pm
(Check against delivery)

Minister of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs,
Chair of the Bangladesh Human Rights Commission,
Commissioners of Human Rights Commissions from Bangladesh and abroad,
Distinguished participants,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

My thanks go to the Bangladesh National Human Rights Commission for inviting me to address this distinguished gathering of Commissioners of human rights institutions from the Asia Pacific region, and government and civil society representatives. I also acknowledge the hard work which the Chairperson and Members of the Bangladesh Commission have been doing since taking up their posts a few months ago.

UNDP has long been engaged in helping build the capacity of national human rights institutions. I spoke about our work with more than ninety of these bodies around the world when I addressed the International Co-ordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions in Geneva in March. It is a pleasure also to acknowledge the chair of the International Committee who is with us today, Rosslyn Noonan, Chief Commissioner of the New Zealand Human Rights Commission.

During that meeting in March, I also met jointly with the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, and Rosslyn Noonan to discuss our co-operation going forward. UNDP’s experience of working with the Asia Pacific Forum and the Office of the High Commissioner in the past tells us that together we can make a big difference.

For example, we jointly facilitated capacity assessment of the human rights commissions of Malaysia and the Maldives in 2008 and 2009, and this year have been implementing the same process in Thailand and Jordan.

Now initial agreement has been reached to roll out the same process with the Palestinian and Afghanistan Commissions, and Sri Lanka has sought assistance too.

As well the Asia Pacific Forum’s sister body in Africa, the Network of African National Human Rights Institutions, has expressed an interest in applying the capacity assessment methodology in its region.

UNDP has had a close partnership with Bangladesh’s development since this country attained its independence. We support poverty reduction strategies based on inclusive growth and transparent and accountable governance. We were among those who advocated for a human rights commission to be established here.

Advancing human development is at the core of UNDP’s mandate. We take a human rights-based approach, going beyond the freedom to be healthy, educated, and enjoy a decent standard of living to embracing also freedom of choice and the ability to participate in decisions affecting one’s life.

Human rights were explicitly recognized in the Millennium Declaration of the UN’s Millennium Summit. In signing that declaration, world leaders stated that “we will spare no effort to promote democracy and strengthen the rule of law, as well as respect for all internationally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right to development”.

The Millennium Summit was a time of hope that collectively our world could help raise living standards for billions more people around the world. The Millennium Development Goals were part of that vision and spirit of optimism that the basics of a decent life could be available to all.

There is no doubt that there has been progress on reducing poverty, hunger, the spread of deadly diseases, and child and infant mortality, as well as on broadening access to education and clean water.

Extreme poverty in East Asia and the Pacific, for example, fell from nearly eighty per cent in 1981 to seventeen per cent in 2005.

Yet across Central, South, and East Asia and the Pacific, more than one in four people remain in extreme poverty as defined by the 1.25 dollar per day benchmark.

Bangladesh itself has been recognized by the UN Secretary- General for its achievement in reducing the mortality rate of children under-five by nearly two thirds – ahead of the 2015 deadline. While much work in Bangladesh remains, in particular to improve food security and nutrition, it is important that we remember to celebrate progress.

To be successful in reaching the MDG targets by 2015, human rights will need to be central to our collective efforts.

A human rights-based approach focuses attention on those who are often left behind, including ethnic minorities, women, children, the disabled, and older people. It promotes active and genuine participation in decision-making. Participation and engagement are critical for sustained development progress. UNDP has seen in its work countless examples of women’s and other community-based organisations arriving at innovative and sustainable development solutions which will transform their lives.

National human rights institutions have critical roles to play in advancing human rights and, thereby, in accelerating development progress. Establishing an independent National Human Rights Institution is an important first step – marking a state’s recognition that human rights are of such fundamental importance that they require a dedicated institution to promote and protect them.

Effective national human rights institutions are charged with empowering and supporting individuals and communities to understand and claim their rights. They advise law-makers on policies and legal frameworks, and on how to meet the international commitments which states have made in ratifying human rights conventions.

To play these demanding and often politically charged roles effectively, national human rights institutions require expertise and skilled advocates.

It is in the interests of all stakeholders, including governments, to ensure that national human rights institutions are given the space and freedom to function independently.


Human rights cannot be effectively protected and advanced by institutions which lack that space and the necessary capacities and resources. As well, free and independent media and civil society also help open up democratic space and help ensure that states do become more responsive and capable.

In our complex modern states, effective accountability cannot only occur at election time. It requires institutions which can monitor, advise, and question governments and agencies on behalf of citizens; can act as a bridge between people and states; can handle complaints when human rights are being breached; and can carry out independent inquiries or investigations where there are systemic and/or major abuses of human rights.

Here in Bangladesh, much progress has been made on key MDG targets, and the establishment of the Human Rights Commission is another important milestone. Now the Commission must be fully empowered and resourced to do its important work. International accreditation will be important to show that the Commission meets international standards and is able to operate independently. It is encouraging to hear of the support promised to the Commission by the highest level of government here.


UNDP looks forward to continuing to support the Bangladesh Human Rights Commission in its important work of promoting and protecting human rights for all citizens here.  By supporting human rights-based approaches in major national policy frameworks in Bangladesh and globally, we can contribute to poverty reduction based on participatory and inclusive strategies and democratic governance. We look forward to continuing work with the countries and human rights institutions of the region represented here today.

I wish you all a very successful forum.