Independent national human rights institutions and a strong and robust civil society play a crucial role in preserving and advancing human rights. As part of our Human Rights Council campaign for the 2018-2020 term, Australia has pledged to work with other States, like Samoa, to support their implementation of international human rights obligations. For example, DFAT provides funding to organisations like the Asia Pacific Forum to promote regional cooperation which builds the capacity of, and strengthens, national human rights institutions and civil society, especially in the Indo-Pacific region.
By Chris Rummery, Australian Volunteer for International Development
I have been volunteering at the Office of the Ombudsman – Samoa’s National Human Rights Institution (NHRI) since 2015.
Working on a tropical island appealed to me when I submitted my Australian volunteer application from an office in Mongolia where a thick cloud of smog, resulting from a Soviet-era coal station, was polluting the air right outside.
It was only after doing some research into Samoa and the Office of the Ombudsman that I realised what a great opportunity it would be to work with a new NHRI in the Pacific. I was also fascinated with the Samoan way of life (fa’asamoa) and how it would interact with the human rights system.
The idea of working in a newly established NHRI as it sought to raise awareness about human rights and create equality also attracted me to apply for the position.
When I arrived, the NHRI was finalising its first ever State of Human Rights Report to submit to Samoa’s Legislative Assembly in June 2015.
The report was the first of its kind in Samoa, and the Pacific, as it put human rights issues on the public record for the first time.
The report also shed light on the interaction between individual and community rights, and the rights of vulnerable people including women, children, people with disabilities and prisoners.
What I enjoyed most about my short time working on the report was learning about how the Ombudsman wanted to portray human rights and faasamoa as mutually reinforcing each other, rather than being in conflict, as some Samoans believe they are.
For me, it was a valuable lesson on how human rights principles can be applied within a local cultural context.
One of my most notable achievements was helping the office gain ‘A’ level status accreditation in May 2016 with the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GAHNRI) in Geneva.
In order for an NHRI to be able to participate fully with all UN Human Rights Bodies, such as the UN Human Rights Council, it has to be peer reviewed by other NHRIs around the world to check conformity with the Paris Principles.
The Paris Principles are a set of UN rules that ensure that each NHRI is independent from government, has a clear mandate to protect and promote human rights in their jurisdiction and has pluralism within its decision-making.
Only by granting ‘A’ status rating is an NHRI allowed to participate in all UN human rights mechanisms.
The accreditation process is not an easy one to overcome. It involves significant regulatory hurdles to overcome and includes a substantial written application to GANHRI and briefing the Ombudsman for a phone hearing with GANHRI.
It was a particularly significant achievement for Samoa as the NHRI is a small hybrid office with three different mandates (good governance, NHRI and a Special Investigations Unit).
The rating also means that the Office of the Ombudsman in Samoa is a model for other small island developing states as they seek to implement their own NHRIs.
I am also contributing positive efforts to combat family violence in Samoa.
I assisted the office to set up its first national human rights inquiry. The inquiry is an effective tool used to highlight certain human rights violations in Samoa.
I was also involved in the initial scoping phase of the Inquiry, and researching other similar inquiries around the world. I also arranged a week-long workshop for all staff on how to run an effective national human rights inquiry, which was funded and run by the Asia-Pacific Forum.
So what is the value of an NHRI and how is making a difference in the lives of Samoans?
From my perspective, NHRIs seek to shine a light on government and business practices to ensure that they are not breaching human rights law.
Human rights only work if there is possibility of redress in case there is a human rights violation. A NHRI is one avenue a person can seek redress if they feel like their rights have been violated.
As a volunteer, I have enjoyed working on an array of projects from human rights reports to the UN and government, coordinating workshops and panel discussions to combining international human rights norms with local culture.
Another significant recognition of human rights that I have seen during my time here was the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by the Samoan Government last year.
I am in Samoa as an Australian volunteer with the Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program that provides opportunities for skilled Australians to contribute to the Australian Government’s aid program.
Since the 1960s, Australia has, through its aid program, supported Australians to undertake voluntary work in developing countries. International volunteering promotes cultural understanding through people-to-people linkages and is a means of promoting both public diplomacy and development outcomes.
The AVID and the new Australian Volunteers programs have been allocated a budget of AUD42.6 million for 2017-18 to support approximately 950 volunteers in 26 countries including Samoa.
Chris has a Bachelor of Arts (History & Sociology) from the University of Sydney as well as a Bachelor of Laws (Graduate Entry) from the University of Technology, Sydney. He is admitted as a solicitor to the Supreme Court of NSW and has worked for 3 NHRI’s in the Asia-Pacific region. First, as a Research Officer at the Australian Human Rights Commission, before relocating to Ulaanbattar, Mongolia in 2015 to work as Human Rights Education Officer at the National Human Rights Commission of Mongolia. Chris has worked for the Samoan NHRI as Human Rights Officer since June 2015.