The 1993 World Conference on Human Rights expressed concern about the gap between the agreed norms and the reality in a number of countries. It recommended that all governments should produce a national plan for the implementation of their human rights obligations.
Fifteen years have passed since that conference in Vienna but only a few countries have produced national plans, among them Azerbaijan, Lithuania, Norway, Moldova and Sweden. Several other countries, however, are now in the process of developing theirs.
The idea is to be systematic about implementation and the first step is to identify the existing problems in the form of a baseline study. Normally, there is no lack of information about human rights shortcomings. Local non-governmental groups, ombudsmen, and international bodies usually provide such information as well as the media and relevant authorities. Such data must be collated and analysed in a structured manner for the purpose of planning.
It may also be advisable to undertake in-depth studies into some areas of particular interest. Views from minorities or marginalised groups should also be obtained.
Problems which tend to come up in serious baseline studies include an assessment of the record on ratification of international human rights treaties, gaps in legislation and shortcomings in the judicial proceedings. An obvious area for analysis is the functioning of existing monitoring systems, such as ombudsmen or national human rights institutions.
Human rights education is a strategic area which also deserves special attention, both the situation in schools and universities as well as specialist training for professionals. Awareness among the population about human rights is certainly an important aspect to consider in this process.
The relationship between the authorities and civil society should be looked at critically. A media policy which respects freedom of expression and encourages many voices to be heard is clearly an issue for examination in a number of countries.
A thorough baseline study should lay the ground for discussion about priorities and what action ought to be taken. A comprehensive human rights action plan or a series of more specific action plans can be drawn up. Observations and recommendations from international human rights bodies – including those from Council of Europe – should be of substantial help at this stage.
As financial constraints and lack of human resources make it difficult to address all problems at once, there is a need to discuss priorities thoroughly and to plan for the medium and long term. All interested parties should be involved in this discussion, including politicians, representatives of the governmental authorities at different levels and non-governmental groups. This would create a sense of shared ownership.
To encourage authorities on board, it is necessary that they perceive this process as relevant for their own work. In the long term, a human rights perspective should be mainstreamed in the day-to-day activities of different authorities including in the budgetary decisions. Active participation by representatives from the political opposition during the drafting process can contribute to the continuity of the work.
Human rights work involves many, if not all, authorities. Coordination and cooperation within the government and among different authorities at national, regional and local levels is thus essential. One tested method is to establish a coordinating body consisting of representatives from all the relevant ministries and agencies.
Such a mechanism provides a forum for the exchange of experiences and information, discussion and cooperation. It is also useful for reporting to international human rights monitoring mechanisms and may in fact save resources, minimising overlap in reporting obligations.
Actors other than the authorities should also be involved in the continuous work for human rights. Focus groups representing civil society, indigenous and national minorities, national human rights structures and enterprises can be established for this purpose.
It takes time to build effective mechanisms to protect human rights, especially when laws need to be changed and institutions reformed. At the same time, the plan should not project too far into the future, otherwise it risks being too vague. Experience so far indicates that the time-frame for such national plans should be between four to five years.
Action plans should be evaluated when the time is up. It is equally important to assess the process, in terms of participation, inclusiveness and transparency, as it is to evaluate the end result. The conclusions of this review should be openly presented and a debate about the effectiveness of the process encouraged. All those who participated in the planning process should be able to contribute to the evaluation.
The evaluation will provide the foundation for a new cycle of the process. A new baseline study should be developed with an equally inclusive, transparent and participatory approach. If well designed, benchmarks and human rights indicators can be valuable tools for follow-up and evaluation, taking both quantitative and qualitative aspects into consideration.
Systematic work for human rights is a continuous process. Baseline studies, action plans and evaluation exercises are tools for clarifying and assessing the steps to be taken to reach our objectives. They inform us what has worked and what has not.