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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





Origin and Mandate

Benin's human rights commission was created when Benin went through a process of political liberalization in the early 1990s. From 1972 to 1989, President Mathieu Kerekou ruled Benin under "socialist military rule." The country then underwent a transition to civilian democratic rule which effectively commenced when Benin ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights [African Charter] in 1986. As it also did in neighboring Togo, ratification of the African Charter sparked the development of a movement for democratization, including the convocation of a National Conference to set the course for the process, which ultimately led to the holding of elections in April 1996. These were won by the incumbent president, who was returned to power as head of a constitutional democracy.

The law creating the Commission Béninoise des Droits de l'Homme [the Benin Human Rights Commission] (CBDH) was largely the result of an initiative by lawyers and jurists belonging to the Benin bar association. Acting independently of the government, they organized in international conference on human rights in 1988 under the aegis of the African Jurists Association, in order to discuss, among other things, how the provisions of the African Charter could be implemented at a national level in Benin.26 The conference recommended the creation of a national institution for the protection and promotion of human rights, as called for by Article 26 of the African Charter, and a committee was appointed to draft a proposal for a national human rights institution, and to lobby members of the national assembly for its adoption. As a result of these efforts, on April 29, 1989, the national assembly passed law 89-004 creating the CBDH.27

That such a progressive law should be passed while the country remained under a restrictive military government was not unusual in the Benin context. Although the country hadexperienced years of political and constitutional instability,28 independent jurists in Benin have long exercised influence over the development of political institutions and the rule of law. For example, in 1976, the legal community-lawyers, law professors, magistrates, judges, notaries, and bailiffs-had united successfully to persuade the Kerekou military government to introduce a constitution after four years in which the country had been ruled without one.29

Although Article 16 of law 89-004 required the minister of justice to convene "all persons interested in the establishment of a commission" within thirty days after the passage of the law (promulgated on May 12, 1989), this did not happen for close to a year. Nine months later, at the national conference in February 1990, the participants called on the transitional government to establish the CBDH. Finally, on March 30, 1990, the prime minister elected by the conference, Nicephore Soglo, established the CBDH.30

Article 4 of the law establishing the CBDH states that it's role is "promoting and safeguarding human rights in the Republic of Benin."31 On the promotional side, the commission can recommend the ratification of international human rights instruments, participate in the preparation of reports by the government owed to various U.N. bodies and make recommendations to the government to "enact the deliberations of U.N. and OAU organs or of any international governmental or nongovernmental human rights institutions."32

The CBDH is vested with broad powers to provide human rights protection, including the task of promoting the rule of law in Benin. It can serve "as mediator between the citizen andgovernment and [receive] in this capacity individual or group complaints by citizens."33 Victims of human rights violations caused by government action or inaction as well as NGOs may petition the CBDH. In conducting investigations, the CBDH has unrestricted access to all reports, registrars, official documents, and locations they may judge useful to the investigation. Finally, the executive board has strong powers to order all measures likely to resolve the reported case; to research with the government ways to redress the violation and/or to find just and equitable reparation; to pursue reconciliation, and failing that, to suggest measures, including recourse to the legal system, the national assembly or the president; and to initiate a legal case on behalf of the complainant.34 The CBDH also has the power to define other rules of procedure, as necessary, under Article 6 of the law.

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