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The catalytic potential of equality and human rights commissions

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When equality commissions were first established in the UK and certain other European and North American states in the 1960s and 1970s, they were expected to play an important role in promoting equality of opportunity and enforcing compliance with the newly enacted anti-discrimination laws of that era. Fifty years on, the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and equivalent bodies in other states continue to perform these functions – and are increasingly also supposed to promote compliance with a wide range of international human rights standards. However, the capacity of such bodies to act as drivers of legal, political and social change is subject to severe limitations, irrespective of whether they are 'pure' equality bodies focused on non-discrimination or 'merged' bodies performing a wider range of functions across the human rights field at large.

Some of these constraints are 'external' in nature, that is, they relate to their resources, independence, powers and general functioning. Others are more 'internal' and existential in nature, that is, they relate to their purpose, functioning, role and relationship with socially disadvantaged groups. Taken together, these constraints hobble the ability of equality and human rights commissions to give effect to a radical agenda of social transformation. However, such bodies can nevertheless still function as effective 'change agents' by enforcing anti-discrimination law and promoting respect for fundamental rights – even if the impact of their work will often be incremental and accumulative rather than immediate and dramatic, as explored in this paper by reference to experience from the UK and other states. In this respect, the trend towards establishing merged equality and human rights commissions represents an affirmation of faith in the modest yet still tangible potential of such bodies to make a positive contribution to the progressive development of society at large.
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Keywords: DISCRIMINATION; EQUALITY COMMISSIONS; HUMAN RIGHTS; SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Email: c.o’[email protected]

Publication date: 01 February 2016

This article was made available online on 08 January 2016 as a Fast Track article with title: "The catalytic potential of Equality and Human Rights Commissions?".

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