(Nairobi) – The Somali parliament should revise the draft law establishing a national human rights commission to ensure a robust, independent body with a broad mandate and enforcement powers, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Parliament should hold public hearings on the draft law and consult widely with civil society during the revision process.
“The proposed human rights commission could play a valuable role in helping to tackle Somalia’s ongoing human rights crisis,” said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “But a weak law will cripple the commission from the start and parliament should make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Somalia’s provisional constitution provides for the establishment of a national human rights commission. The Justice Ministry presented a version of the draft law to Parliament on May 30, 2013. It is scheduled for a second reading before it will be presented to the Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights, Women and Humanitarian Affairs, which has the power to recommend amendments.
Throughout Somalia’s decades-long conflict, Human Rights Watch has documented serious abuses such as murder, rape, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, and looting by all sides. Given this history of abuses, it is essential to empower the commission to investigate even the most politically sensitive abuses, Human Rights Watch said.
The version of the draft law seen by Human Rights Watch contains positive elements to promote and protect human rights in Somalia, such as specifying the responsibility to monitor and investigate human rights abuses. However, many crucial provisions needed for an effective human rights commission are either superficial or omitted from the current draft, Human Rights Watch said.
The commission should have a broad mandate and the necessary powers to carry out its work effectively, including unhindered access to witnesses, information, and locations, and the powers to ensure that its recommendations are carried out.
The draft provides clarity on the tenure of commissioners, which is important for the commission’s independence. But the process to select and nominate commissioners should be amended to minimize the potential for government interference, and ensure a wide range of qualified nominees and a clear role for civil society in vetting candidates. A public call for nominees followed by a transparent and consultative appointment process established in law is critical.
In addition, the selection criteria for commissioners should reflect the importance of including women and members of vulnerable groups, as well as mirroring Somalia’s ethnic and regional diversity.
“There is no single formula to create a truly effective human rights commission, but the commissioners are the bedrock,” Lefkow said. “A selection process that is open and consultative and that yields knowledgeable and independent-minded commissioners will foster legitimacy and credibility in people’s eyes.”
The commission’s powers to enforce its mandate need to be further defined. The current draft allows the commission to initiate human rights investigations, which will enable the commission to set its own agenda. But the commission will also need subpoena powers and the ability to sanction those who obstruct its work.
Were the commission to be set up under the draft law in its current form, it appears unlikely that it would meet the standards of the United Nations Paris Principles on the establishment and functioning of national human rights institutions, Human Rights Watch said. The Paris Principles say that national institutions should be given “as broad a mandate as possible.” Further, the institution should be empowered to hear anyone and obtain any information and any documents necessary for assessing situations falling within its jurisdiction.
Human Rights Watch urged the Somali government to revise the draft law to comply with the Paris Principles and to ensure that the commission emerges as an institution able to contribute to creating a culture of human rights in Somalia.
“Somalia’s international partners are eager to support government institutions, but they should make clear that their support for a new human rights commission depends on the authorities’ commitment to an active and empowered body,” Lefkow said. “A weak law rapidly rushed through parliament would be a profound disservice to Somalia’s many victims of abuse.”