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Value of state human rights bodies questioned

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 Thursday.

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 added.

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 Watch.

A mandate 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 stated.

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 said.

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 victims [of abuses]."

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