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Protectors or Pretenders? - Government Human Rights Commissions in Africa, HRW Report 2001




International Standards: The Paris Principles

Important Factors

Examining the Record in Africa

Innovative and Positive Contributions by Commissions

Regional Iniatives

The Role Of The International Community






    While there are several well-meaning members on the Standing Committee for Human Rights, as a collective body the Standing Committee's contribution to the protection of human rights in Kenya has been weak, even irrelevant. The visibility of the Standing Committee within Kenyan society is virtually non-existent. It has been greatly hampered by its weak powers, its confidential reporting requirement to the president, its unwillingness to take up politically sensitive issues in any way that would challenge the government, and its lack of cooperation with the established human rights NGO community in Kenya. The Standing Committee carries little or no public credibility or legitimacy with the average Kenyan.

    It is clear that the restriction of the committee's reports only to the president contributes to public and parliamentary ignorance of its activities, and even of its existence. The publication of its first report in December 1998 was a major step in breaking that silence and in at least raising the visibility of the Standing Committee. However, in order to obtain public legitimacy, the Standing Committee will have to do more than publish a few reports.

    There is evident caution by the members of the Standing Committee in following up on their recommendations or to touch on more politically sensitive abuses by the government. The lack of autonomy and powers has resulted in a non-controversial approach. Unlike some human rights commissioners in other countries, the Kenyan commissioners are unwilling to push the boundaries of their limitations and risk the open wrath of the president.

    The lack of action and autonomy of the Standing Committee for Human Rights is all the more highlighted when compared to the activities of the thriving human rights NGO community in Kenya. A broad array of rights groups and media outlets speak out on violations that are occurring, and regularly come under attack by the government as a result. However, the Standing Committee for Human Rights has neither developed a working relationship with these NGOs, nor does it provide a protective umbrella to these groups. For example, the Standing Committee was silent when, in March 1998, President Moi threatened to deregister a number of human rights NGOs following their support of a broad-based constitutional reform movement. Prof. Mutungi and his fellow commissioners have adopted an arms-length relationship with the human rights NGO world.

    Interactions by the Standing Committee with Human Rights Watch and other international NGOs have been characterized by suspicion and distrust. In reply to issues raised by international groups, the Standing Committee has issued pro forma responses, outrightly denying government culpability for violations occurring. For example, in a response to a letter from Amnesty International raising human rights concerns, the Standing Committee's reply contained sweeping sentences in support of the government such as:

    there is no systematic pattern or policy by the Government to deny citizens their rights or to harass any particular person, groups or professions and what goes wrong can usually be traced to rogue and ill disciplined elements in public service . . . . The President and his government in our views is fully committed to the observance of human rights and endeavours at all times to deal with violators of others' rights. There is also a concerted effort to rectify matters where past violations might have taken place.134

    Human Rights Watch was present at an April 1998 meeting where Prof. Mutungi, chair of the Standing Committee for Human Rights, demurred to a request by Amnesty International to put his signature to a global signature campaign to the U.N. secretary general being collected by Amnesty International that pledged a commitment to uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That the chair of the Standing Committee for Human Rights would decline to put his signature to a pledge to support the Universal Declaration of Human Rights-his very job-exemplifies the outlook and approach of Kenya's national human rights body.

    The drafting of a proposed law, in consultation with the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, to address the poor legal underpinnings is a step in the right direction. Additionally, the Standing Committee has stated that it plans to consult widely with other human rights bodies, the legal community and the political opposition, among others regarding the draft bill. Confidential discussions with members of the Standing Committee, however, indicate a division within the Standing Committee between some members who are serious about opening up to the proper functions of a national human rights commission, and those who still perceive their purpose to be to protect the president from allegations of human rights violations. This tension is likely to continue even after the bill has been enacted, and its outcome remains to be seen. But undoubtedly, even the passage of the proposed law would be a positive and quantum leap forward.

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