OHRC’s purpose Compromised: Government Influence Undermines Effectiveness and Independence

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Ahead of their reviews for human rights organizations in Oman, MENA Rights Group and the Oman Center for Human Rights and Democracy (OCHRD) have alerted the Sub-Committee on Accreditation (SCA) that Oman’s national human rights institution, the Omani Human Rights Commission (OHRC), is failing to fulfill its mandate to protect human rights in the country. The NGOs have particularly urged the SCA to grant the organization a ‘B’ status during its review.

The SCA accreditation follows a ‘peer-review’ process to assess the compliance of national human rights institutions with the Paris Principles, which set the minimum standards for NHRIs to be credible and to operate effectively. The key pillars of the Paris principles are pluralism, independence, and effectiveness. NHRIs must be independent of the government, represent and collaborate with civil society, and promote human rights by monitoring and addressing any violations.

In 2013, the OHRC received a B status from the SCA for not fully complying with the Paris Principles. NGOs, including MENA Rights group and the OCHRD, have investigated and gathered evidence to prove that the OHRC still does not comply sufficiently with these principles. This raises questions about which pillars of the Paris Principles are still being violated? In a letter to the SCA, the MENA Rights Group detailed multiple reasons for why the OHRC should be granted a “B” status.

Firstly, the OHRC lacks independence. The Paris Principles require state human rights institutions to act independently from societal power brokers, particularly the government. Although state institutions are government-established, they must ensure sufficient independence to perform their duties effectively without government interference. Independence covers legal and operational autonomy, financial matters, and appointment and dismissal processes. Many NGOs believe the Commission falls short of these standards, being susceptible to political influences. Indeed, the OHRC was established in 2008 by a unilateral Royal Decree from the Sultan, who has sole legislative authority. The Sultan also appoints OHRC members directly by royal decree, with no external or independent oversight. This appointment process lacks transparency and is not based on merit, expertise, or qualifications. Additionally, consultees highlighted the Commission’s inability to address discrimination in funding for religious education in the province, where Catholic schools receive funding while other faith-based schools do not. This undermines the Paris Principles, as the government exploits the institution’s lack of independence to push its own agenda.

Second, the OHRC has not complied with the principle of effectiveness. The institution has failed to protect several human rights, including the right to freedom of expression and the right to privacy. The Internal Security Service Law of 2020, which allows Omani security services to arrest and detain any individual for legitimately expressing their opinions, remains in force without any signs of recommendations for reform. The Commission has also failed to address the creation of the Cyber Defense Centre, monitored by the Internal Security Service, which can access private individuals’ electronic devices. While the OHRC has introduced an online procedure for individual complaints of human rights violations, it has not responded to many complaints from individuals and civil society organizations. Meanwhile, Omani authorities have targeted human rights defenders, journalists and citizens speaking out about human rights issues, through which the OHRC has kept their silence. This ongoing threat to freedom of expression and privacy indicates the Paris Principle of effectiveness if not being upheld.

The SCA must take these factors into account when reviewing the OHRC. In addition, countries with influence and strategic partnerships with Oman such as the United States and Germany who remain an important trade partner for Oman, should leverage their positions to pressure the government into making necessary changes to improve human rights, specifically by holding the Commission accountable for not addressing these issues.