08 Apr 2021

Researching and addressing racism in a white NHRI: Reflections on a more responsible approach

By Beatrice Cobbinah and Mareike Niendorf, Researchers and Policy Advisors, German Institute for Human Rights (GIHR)

As state-mandated bodies with a broad mandate to protect and promote human rights, NHRIs have the expertise to deal with topics related to discrimination, racism, forced displacement and asylum. However, NHRIs in Europe are still predominantly white institutions[1] whose staff members often lack a direct, lived experience of discrimination. To dismantle barriers in society sustainably, we need to start a conversation about exclusionary and marginalising structures within NHRIs themselves and address the reproduction of power asymmetries in our very own work and cooperation with partners as a first step.

With our broad human rights mandate, we, National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) in Europe, along with civil society and academia, deal with societal issues related to power relations and address lived experience of discrimination and human rights issues of marginalised people in our everyday work. However, very few people with lived experience of structural discrimination hold positions of power. The reality is that those with lived experience do not often receive recognition for their expertise, as institutional structures are designed to include mostly people in a position of privilege.

In its function as a NHRI, the German Institute for Human Rights (GIHR) often analyses power relations, works on protection against discrimination, including racism, flight, forced migration and asylum. However, very few GIHR employees have experienced any of these. As a result, there is a risk of bias in our research and findings as it is mostly produced by people with a privileged perspective.

This is an important and difficult reflection to make: there is an urgent need – also for NHRIs – to systematically integrate views and perspectives of people with experience of discrimination and human rights issues in our daily work. Structural integration of the most important perspectives from those who face structural discrimination on a daily basis is lacking within the institution.

Participatory cooperation and inclusion in the context of power asymmetries

How can a NHRI ensure fair, inclusive and participatory cooperation with people with lived experience of discrimination and human rights issues?

To create and re-establish trust among those belonging to marginalised groups, there is a need for NHRIs to reflect on their role in stabilising existing power relations and to implement a responsible approach to power and privilege at all levels including the Institutions’ structures, processes, and staff development.

When it comes to daily work, NHRIs should involve partners representing vulnerable groups and with appropriate financial compensation for their endeavours. With respect to power sharing, work on a joint project can thus also result in a benefit for self-organised groups/organisations that reaches beyond the benefits of the project itself. NHRIs should always aim to create meaningful long-term cooperation with their partners on trust. To achieve this, we need to rethink existing and very formal participation formats, such as advisory board meetings, and create more inclusive formats that reflect the needs of those involved. Lastly and most importantly, meaningful cooperation and participation requires resources and time: this needs to be clearly communicated to funders, planners and managers, in order to allocate sufficient time and resources.  

Taking responsibility at the institutional level

The first step is to raise awareness of the structural injustices and existing power asymmetries within the institution and its staff. A heightened awareness for such structures on the part of individual members of staff is not enough, however. NHRIs should analyse existing policies that can result in exclusion and put vulnerable people at disadvantage.

The recruitment practices should be updated to remove administrative burden and provide space to employ more people with lived experience of discrimination and human rights issues such as displacement, migration or racism. However, the mere recruitment of these people will not counterbalance the existing structural inequality. The people with lived experience of discrimination and human rights issues should be in positions to influence the direction of the institution and have a more significant decision-making power. On the other hand, it is equally important that those who benefit from power structures are responsible for inclusion and lead awareness-raising initiatives, as those with lived experiences are already more scrutinised at work.

Conducting responsible research on structural discrimination and marginalisation requires patience, critical reflection and is indeed an important learning process. This is even more paramount when we consider that NHRIs are dedicated to promoting and protecting human rights. In order to provide a sustainable response to existing structural discrimination and human rights violations in our societies, we need start a difficult discussion about our own structures. This should be the first step for us, NHRIs, to address the existing power asymmetries in our very own work, in order to battle the structural discrimination and human rights violations more efficiently elsewhere.

This text is based on this publication

[1] White institutions are characterised by the fact that the majority of the people who work there are white and that a large portion of the administrative processes, informal practices and interpretational and decision-making authorities are substantially shaped by white perspectives