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Fwd: AFRICA: Value of state human rights bodies questioned [2010222]

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  • Kristen Cheney
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    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 22, 2001
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      >From: IRIN <irin@...>
      >To: IRIN - English Service <english@...>
      >Subject: AFRICA: Value of state human rights bodies questioned [2010222]
      >Date: Thu, 22 Feb 2001 12:08:32 +0300 (BEAUT)
      >AFRICA: Value of state human rights bodies questioned
      >NAIROBI, 22 February (IRIN) - A rapid growth in the establishment of
      >government-backed human rights commissions throughout Africa in the last
      >decade has not generally led to better protection, the New York-based
      >organisation, Human Rights Watch, charged in a major new study released on
      >Many of these commissions seemed to be geared more towards deflecting
      >international criticism of their human rights records than to addressing
      >rights abuses, it said. The United Nations and donor countries, who were
      >actively encouraging the creation of these institutions, often failed to
      >ensure that they actually did something to protect victims and combat
      >human rights abuses, and should be wary of giving legitimacy to
      >commissions that served merely as "window dressing", it added.
      >"Millions of Africans are being displaced, tortured or killed. Yet the sad
      >truth is that human rights commissioners in Africa often turn a blind eye
      >to these abuses," said Binaifer Nowrojee, primary author of the report, in
      >a Human Rights Watch (HRW) press statement.
      >Many commissioners - such as those of Cameroon, Chad, Kenya, Liberia and
      >Sudan - failed to publicly denounce abuses "either from fear of
      >retribution or out of hope of government favour," it said. In Algeria,
      >Togo and Tunisia, commissioners downplayed their government's abuses, it
      >However, the report praised Ghanaian, South African and Ugandan
      >commissioners who, it said, "have not been afraid to speak out strongly
      >when confronted with government abuses." It said these commissions were
      >deserving of increased and continuing support, not least by the
      >international community, and that the Ghanaian and Ugandan institutions
      >could serve as an example and a resource for other government commissions
      >in their regions. [for full report, with country-by-country analysis of
      >national commissions, go to http://www.hrw.org]
      >The secrets of success
      >In a two-year study, Human Rights Watch found the most significant factor
      >in the success of these state bodies was "the courage and integrity of
      >commission members". The more successful tended to have a clear mandate, a
      >constitutional basis, strong powers, and a commitment of purpose in the
      >light of criticism from the executive or other branches of government,
      >according to the HRW report. It also highlighted the need for adequate
      >funding and the impossibility of progress on human rights without
      >political will.
      >In Ghana, the study showed that the Commission of Human Rights and
      >Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), headed by a dynamic commissioner, Emile
      >Short, could investigate corruption as well as rights complaints against
      >state and non-state actors. It had strong enforcement powers, had not
      >shied away from tackling more sensitive issues and had held its ground
      >against other government agencies that had sought to silence it. The
      >Commission had highlighted particular issues, from jail conditions to
      >harmful practices against women and girls, and "positively contributed
      >towards a stronger human rights culture".
      >The Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) had broad, quasi-judicial
      >powers, a collaborative working relationship with local and international
      >human rights NGOs, and a courageous, capable leader in Margaret Sekaggya.
      >It, too, had tackled sensitive issues, such as rights abuses by state
      >security forces, and had a real impact in highlighting prison conditions,
      >police brutality and arbitrary arrests - despite limited resources, the
      >report stated.
      >The courage to take unpopular stances was also exemplified by the South
      >African Human Rights Commission, one of the best funded and active state
      >commissions on the continent, in its outspoken stance on xenophobia
      >[intense dislike or fear of foreigners], Human Rights Watch stated. The
      >SAHRC had benefited from a generally supportive political environment and
      >a strong human rights community to become an important institution but,
      >for these reasons, it could have achieved more in this field, it added.
      >Nonetheless, the SAHRC had the potential, especially as it developed
      >regional offices, "to make a concrete difference to individual lives as
      >well as to the development of national policy", according to Human Rights
      >A recipe for failure
      >In some cases, the study found a national rights body's potential was
      >seriously stymied by external controls. In the West African state of
      >Cameroon, for instance, Human Rights Watch found the credibility and
      >autonomy of the National Commission of Human Rights and Freedoms (NCHRF)
      >to be "greatly hindered by strong presidential control over its
      >appointment and operations". Its weak powers and silence on major abuses
      >by the government "tarnishes its claim to be a credible or representative
      >force for human rights", according to the report.
      >Similarly, Liberia's Human Rights Commission was paralysed by the
      >government of Charles Taylor "through its flawed legislation, inadequate
      >funding and political pressure", it said. The Commission had remained
      >virtually silent in the face of growing evidence of abuse by Taylor's
      >government and showed "the utter impotency of a human rights commission
      >which depends entirely upon a government that is not committed to
      >improving human rights".
      >In Kenya, the Standing Committee of Human Rights was a body formed at the
      >discretion of President Daniel arap Moi, with members appointed by him and
      >reporting only to him, action decided by him and members removable by him,
      >HRW stated. Kenya's national rights mechanism was "tightly circumscribed
      >by executive control" and had questionable legal status under the
      >constitution, it said.
      >The Sudanese government continued to commit "serious human rights abuses"
      >and had created a human rights entity to mitigate such criticism, Human
      >Rights Watch reported. The Advisory Council for Human Rights had no
      >autonomy, was established by presidential decree and dissoluble by the
      >president. The Council's functions were "little more [than] to coordinate
      >submissions due to various UN agencies, and monitor the activities of
      >various human rights investigators who are allowed to visit the country".
      >The Nigerian National Human Rights Commission Commission established in
      >1995 was also "clearly designed as an attempt to head off international
      >criticism of military rule", was still constituted under military decree
      >and lacked many of the powers and guarantees of independence, the report
      >Stages on a continuum
      >Cases such as that of Benin, where a strong Constitutional Court had
      >improved the human rights climate - despite, rather than because of the
      >support of the "inactive complacency" of the Commission Beninoise des
      >Droits de l'Homme (CBDH) - posed the question of whether a national rights
      >commission was needed if other institutions of the state were affording
      >protection, according to Human Rights Watch.
      >The situation of Togo, too, was complex, with the Commission Nationale des
      >Droits de l'Homme (CNDH) having swayed, over time, from being "a catalyst
      >for fundamental democratic change" to being "an apologist for government
      >abuses", according to the report. In its current phase, the Commission
      >continues to have substantial formal powers and independence but "appears
      >to be more concerned with defending itself and the national authorities
      >than protecting and protecting human rights in Togo", HRW stated.
      >On the other hand, the Malawian and Senegalese state commisssions showed
      >early promise, the former benefiting from excellent enabling legislation
      >and broad powers despite problems with political will, and the latter
      >having established clear and strong links with civil society and activist
      >NGOs, according to Human Rights Watch. The Zambian body had also shown
      >itself to be serious about protecting human rights despite serious
      >government limitations and self-imposed political limitations, it stated.
      >In Ethiopia, although the government held a broad, donor-funded
      >consultative process on the establishment last year of its National Human
      >Rights Commission, it had "largely excluded local and international human
      >rights NGOs", HRW reported. This was "a worrying sign at this stage" and
      >it was "somewhat surprising that the international community so readily
      >provided substantial funding to the government for this endeavour", it
      >Most of the human rights commissions in Africa were formed by governments
      >with poor human rights records and weak state institutions generally, and
      >many were underfunded, according to Human Rights Watch.
      >The report acknowledged that government commissions had the potential to
      >put a stop to state abuses, get remedies for victims and support local
      >human rights activities under attack for their work.
      >However, according to Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa
      >division of Human Rights Watch: "African countries are jumping on the
      >human rights bandwagon, but they don't seem truly interested in helping
      >[IRIN-CEA: Tel: +254 2 622147 Fax: +254 2 622129 e-mail:
      >irin-cea@... ]
      >[This item is delivered in the "africa-english" service of the UN's IRIN
      >humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views
      >of the United Nations. For further information, free subscriptions, or
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      >Copyright (c) UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2000
      >Subscriber: kcheney@...
      >Keyword: Uganda

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