In 1991, a United Nations-sponsored conference produced the Paris Principles on the preferred status and powers of autonomous national human rights bodies. Since then, in many countries these agencies have become important new actors in strengthening human rights. Now it is time for the UAE to consider setting up its own human rights agency.
There is a growing field of international human rights law, but for the most part this is a matter for national law. In many countries, ordinary people now look to these bodies not only for the protection of rights and fundamental freedoms, but also to put domestic human rights protection in the international context.
Respect for the rights of others is the essence of social responsibility and mutual obligation, so desirable in any state. The UAE is already party to numerous international human rights instruments that confirm the official commitment to promote and protect rights.
Qatar, Jordan and Oman have already set up institutions, at arm's length from governments, to promote and protect rights and liberties. Here are some reasons why it is time for the UAE, to do the same:
First, the international community increasingly considers rights agencies to be essential to ensure effective national implementation of international rights standards.
Second, an agency of this type also promotes a culture in which rights are less likely to be infringed upon. There can be significant gaps in the protection provided by courts, parliaments and officials, even when supported by domestic and international non-governmental organisations; rights institutions can fill these gaps. A national rights institution can be vital to the promotion of a change of official culture.
Third, human rights institutions play a legitimising role, validating constitutional arrangements. As one expert put it, human rights bodies "signal the stamp of democratic legitimacy". That is, a human rights agency occupies a unique space between government and civil society. Being close to government, it can engage with officials and influence policy. Being outside of government, it can also negotiate on good terms with non-government actors.
Fourth, human rights are not only a matter of law, essential though that is, but also an ethical code, requiring people to treat each other with dignity and respect. A new UAE human rights commission could conduct public inquiries, assist the UN in scrutinising the country's rights record, and speak about issues on which officials may be silent. Other national institutions would probably benefit from it.
Although often created largely to satisfy international audiences, rights offices can link those who govern and those who are governed. They can also guide countries towards fuller rights regimes, enhancing their nations' reputations.
What would a UAE human rights agency look like? The key elements of any such unit are its independence and non-political nature.
The Paris Principles recommend a constitutional or legislative mandate, to safeguard the office's independence. Responsibilities should include advising government, parliament and others, examining legislation and regulations for compliance with rights standards, considering violations, preparing reports, teaching and doing research.
By joining fully in the international human rights culture, the UAE would become one of the countries committed to upholding the highest standards of rights.
The UAE is already a model for change, strongly defending the UN mechanisms that promote the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UAE has shown itself resolute in improving its own record and contributing internationally.
This orientation is rooted in part in the country's cultural heritage and religious values, which enshrine justice, equality and tolerance. Setting up a human rights organisation would open new doors for the UAE, guiding the country towards greater success and greater respect on the world stage.
Dr Gyan Basnet is a researcher and an advocate in the Supreme Court of Nepal. Captain Mansoor Hassan Albalooshi of the Dubai police is a doctorate candidate at Lancaster University Law School