A rapid growth in government-sponsored human rights commissions across Africa has not generally led to better human rights protection, Human Rights Watch charged in a major new study "Protectors or Pretenders?"

Half the countries in Africa now have such commissions, while only one country (Togo) did in 1989. However, many of the commissions appear designed to deflect international criticism of human rights abuses rather than to address the abuses themselves. The commissions in Ghana, South Africa and Uganda, however, are exceptions to the general trend.

International donors and the United Nations are actively encouraging the creation of these new state institutions. But after providing initial expertise and funding, these donors often do not follow through to make sure government human rights commissions actually do something to protect victims and combat human rights abuse, Human Rights Watch said.

"African governments are jumping on the human rights bandwagon, but they don't seem truly interested in helping victims," said Peter Takirambudde, Executive Director of the Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "Many of these government human rights commissions are weak. The U.N. and international funders must not give legitimacy to commissions that serve merely as window dressing."

The performance of these commissions varies considerably from country to country. Most were formed by governments with poor human rights records and weak state institutions generally, and many commissions are under-funded, according to the report.

The 407-page report, "Protectors or Pretenders?" examined Africa's twenty-two commissions over a two-year period.

The most significant factor, according to Human Rights Watch, is the courage and integrity of commission members. Many commissioners fail to publicly denounce abuses, either from fear of retribution, or out of hope of government favor. This is the case in Cameroon, Chad, Kenya, Liberia, and Sudan. In some places, such as Algeria, Togo, and Tunisia, commissioners downplay their government's abuses. Others are careful to avoid comment on politically sensitive violations, as in Nigeria under military rule. And several have yet to fully establish themselves due to legislative problems, delays in appointing staff, or lack of funding.

"Millions of Africans are being displaced, tortured, or killed," said Binaifer Nowrojee, primary author of the report and counsel with the Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "Yet the sad truth is that human rights commissioners in Africa often turn a blind eye to these abuses."

Human Rights Watch acknowledged the potential of government human rights commissions to put a stop to state abuses, get remedies for victims, and support local human rights activists under attack for their work. The report praised the Ghanaian, South African, and Ugandan commissioners who have not been afraid to speak out strongly when confronted with government abuses.

The report said the Malawian and Senegalese commissions show early promise. In Zambia, too, despite serious limitations placed by the government, the commission has increasingly shown itself to be serious.