Human Rights WatchGovernment Human Rights Commissions in Africa ContentsDownloadPrintOrderHRW Homepage

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






The Benin example serves to pose the question whether the existence of a human rights commission necessarily helps to bring improved human rights protection in a country. Generally, Benin's human rights situation has undergone significant improvements in the past decade, but without the CBDH appearing to make much of a contribution to this or taking an active role. On the contrary, the CBDH has been a generally passive player partly, it seems, because of a sense of complacency among its members that human rights are generally respected and that more concerted action on the part of the commission is unnecessary or would be inappropriate. Thus, in a 1997 editorial in the first issue of the CBDH's own magazine, Journal des Droits de l'Homme, its president wrote, "at the moment, one can without risk of error say that these rights are not threatened in Benin,"48 a sentiment which appears to be widely shared among lawyers, human rights activists and the foreign diplomatic community in Benin. One diplomat, for example, told Human Rights Watch that "human rights are part of the democratic culture in Benin,"49 while Maurice Glélé Ahanhanzo, member of the constitutional court, expressed the view that "there is in Benin an acute and permanent consciousness of human rights."50

It is probably for the same reason that Beninois human rights NGOs concentrate their efforts on promotional and educational activities, such as training seminars, radio broadcasts, and the publication of brochures. Almost none of them undertake investigations into alleged human rights violations or other protection activities, with the notable exception of the BeninAssociation of Women Jurists, which offers pro bono legal aid to indigent women and victims of gender-based violence. The CBDH is thus not an exception in this regard.

Another reason for the relative inactivity of the CBDH may be the more forceful role that the constitutional court has taken in regard to the protection of rights. This court was given wide powers under the December 1990 constitution to guarantee "the fundamental rights of human beings and civil liberties," including to review "the constitutionality of laws and regulations which deal with the fundamental rights of human beings, on civil rights, and in general, on violations of human rights." The court can, on its own initiative, examine the constitutionality of any law which it believes may "infringe on fundamental human rights and civil liberties." More importantly, the court can receive directly individual claims from victims of human rights violations on which it must rule within fifteen days.51 One of its judges, Maurice Glélé Ahanhanzo, told Human Rights Watch that the constitutional court had, in its five years of existence, issued over 150 decisions concerning human rights, either as direct claims by individual victims, or as constitutional review of laws violating human rights.52 The court is widely regarded, therefore, as the most effective body for the protection of human rights in Benin, including by the CBDH.53 One might ask if the availability of independent and effectivejudicial redress through the courts diminishes, in the eyes of victims, the need for recourse to another mechanism such as a national human rights commission?

Beyond its very real financial difficulties, the CBDH appears not to command public confidence, including within the legal and human rights communities. Thus Sadikou Alao, lawyer and president of a Benin-based regional NGO, Groupe d'Etudes et de Recherche sur la Démcratie et le Développement Economique et Social en Afrique [Study and Research Group on Democracy and Economic and Social Development in Africa] (GERDDES), believes that the commission "has no impact and is not known by the population," and that it suffers from a "credibility problem."54 Even the minister of justice has publicly criticized the commission's "lethargy," and as a consequence, initiated the "Consultative Council on Human Rights," an umbrella organization to cooperate with local human rights NGOs.55 Constitutional court judge Hon. Maurice Glélé Ahanhanzo, has also commented on the "paralysis" of the CBDH.56 International donors in Benin seem likewise to place more faith in the local NGOs than in the CBDH. For example, when it wishes to finance events in Benin to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1998, UNDP looked to the IDHPD, not the CBDH, to coordinate the activities.57

If it is to be taken more seriously, it is clear that the CBDH must become more active and take on a greater range of initiatives. Given its strong mandate, independent appointments procedures, and the relatively conducive political climate in Benin, there appear to be no major impediments to its effecting such a transformation. It is ironic that this human rights commission, of all those in the region, is the least active and not, as it should be, a model capable of setting the highest standards for others in the region to follow. It needs to change: to being, it might well do more to meet its obligation to be a "mediator between citizens and the state," for example, by seeking to complement the activities of the constitutional court and local human rights groups or by addressing some of the more neglected human rights issues confronting itscitizens.

26 Human Rights Watch interview, Saibou Agbantou, CBDH president, Cotonou, Benin, April 7, 1999. According to Mr. Agbantou, the participants at the conference included, among others: Rober Dossou, former president of the African Jurists Association and current minister of justice in Benin; Maurice Glélé Ahanhanzo, currently special rapporteur against racism for the U.N. Commission on Human Rights and member of Benin's constitutional court; as well as Saibou Agbantou himself who had represented the African Jurists Association one year earlier at the installation ceremony of the Togolese human rights commission.

27 Ibid.

28 From the time of independence in 1960 to 1990, Benin saw about twenty political crises and about ten consitutions whose individual span was less than three years on average. See J. A. Toudonou and L. C. Kpenonhou, Constitution et textes constitutionnels de la République du Benin depuis les origines dahoméennes, (Université nationale du Benin: Cotonou, 1995).

29 Nathanael G. Mensah, "Reflexion sur le constitutionalisme beninois," Revue Beninoise des Sciences Juridiques et Administratives,(Université nationale du Benin: Cotonou, 1992).

30 Human Rights Watch interview, Saibou Agbantou, CBDH president, Cotonou, Benin, April 7, 1999.

31 "promouvoir et de sauvegarder les droits de l'homme en République du Benin"

32 "rendre compte periodiquement aux pouvoirs publics de ses activites et les inviter a executer les deliberatiuons des organes de l'ONU et de l'OUA ou de toutes institutions internationales, gouvernementales ou non gouvernementales, ayant en charge des questions des droits de l'homme."

33 "Servir de mediateur entre le citoyen et les pouvoirs publics et recevoir ans ce cadre les requêtes."

34 "d'arrêter toutes mesures susceptibles de résoudre le cas de violation relevé; de rechercher avec l'administration les voies et moyens de mettre fin à la violation ou d'en obtenir une juste et équitable réparation;
- de concilier l'administration et le requérant; en cas d'échec de la conciliation, de suggérer des mesures, y compris le recours judiciaire, le recours à l'Assemblée nationale ou au Président de la République; de se "constituer partie civile" devant les tribunaux, c'est-à-dire, d'être elle-même partie au procès de l'auteur de la violation des droits de l'homme et d'y prendre fait et cause pour la victime."

35 The name could suggest that they have no limits on their mandate and that they remain members of the commission as long as they retain the confidence of the bodies they represent. The inactivity of the CBDH has prevented this interpretation and other provisions of the law from being tested.

36 CBDH, Journal des Droits de l'Homme, no. 2, December 1997, p.5.

37 Ibid., p.13.

38 Ibid., p.4.

39 CBDH, "Guide des conferences itinerantes de la Commission Beninoise des Droits de l'Homme," Dominique Adjahouinou, secretary general, CBDH.

40 Human Rights Watch interviews, Saidou Agbantou, CBDH president and Felicite Sodjiedo, CBDH treasurer, Cotonou, Benin, April 7, 1999.

41 Human Rights Watch interview, Saidou Agbantou, CBDH president, Cotonou, Benin, April 7, 1999.

42 Ibid.

43 CBDH, "Communique de presse," January 23, 1999; Mr. Agbantou was then elected president of the CENA.

44 Human Rights Watch interviews, Saidou Agbantou, CBDH president and Felicite Sodjiedo, CBDH treasurer, Cotonou, Benin, April 7, 1999.

45 Human Rights Watch interview, Saidou Agbantou, CBDH president, Cotonou, Benin, April 7, 1999.

46 Human Rights Watch interviews, Felicite Sodjiedo, CBDH treasurer, and Saidou Agbantou, CBDH president, Cotonou, Benin, April 7, 1999; and email communication from Learned Dees, Africa department head, NED, Washington, USA, February 3, 2000.

47 CBDH, Journal des Droits de l'Homme, no. 001, July 1997, p.3.

48 "pour l'heure, on peut dire sans grand risque de se tromper que ces droits ne sont pas menacés au Benin." CBDH, Journal des Droits de l'Homme, No. 001, July 1997, p.16.

49 Human Rights Watch interview, diplomat, Cotonou, Benin, April 7, 1999.

50 Human Rights Watch interview, Hon. Maurice Glélé Ahanhanzo, constitutional court judge, Cotonou, Benin, April 8, 1999.

51 Benin's constitutional court was established June 7, 1993. It consists of seven members, of whom four are appointed by the executive of the national assembly, and three by the president for a five year term, renewable once. The court is presided over by renowned jurist Elizabeth Pognon, and one of its members, Maurice Glélé Ahanhanzo, is the president of the NGO Institute for Human Rights and the Promotion of Democracy as well as the U.N. Special Rapporteur against Racism to the U. N. Commission on Human Rights. The constitutional provisions setting out the above stated powers of the constitutional court are contained in Articles 114, 117, 121 and 120 respectively.

52 Human Rights Watch interview, Hon. Maurice Glélé Ahanhanzo, constitutional court judge, Cotonou, Benin, April 8, 1999. See also IDHPD, Les Droits de l'Homme en Question, 1998, pp.50-58.

53 CBDH, Guide pour les conferences itinerantes de la Commission Beninoise des Droits de l'Homme, Dominique Adjahouinou, December, 1998. According to this CBDH document, "The Constitutional Court sits regularly and has given more than one hundred decisions since its inception. The decisions of the Court are generally relevant to: the right to free movement, freedom of association, freedom to participate in the management of public affairs, and mistreatment or public violence." p.7 ["La Cour Constitutionnelle est regulierement, pour ne pas dire quotidiennement saisie et a rendu plus d'une centaine de decisions depuis son installation. Les decisions de la Cour sont generalement relatives a: la violation de la liberte d'aller et venir, la liberte d'association, la libre participation a la direction des affaires publiques, et les mauvais traitements ou violences publiques"]

54 Human Rights Watch interview with Sadikou Alao, president, GERDDES, Cotonou, Benin, April 7, 1999.

55 Ibid. Confirmed by the CBDH who believes that the consultative council is "an empty body," and "a waste of money that should have been given to the CBDH," as well as "a way [for the government] to escape [its] responsibilities." Human Rights Watch interviews, Saidou Agbantou, CBDH president and Felicite Sodjiedo, CBDH treasurer, Cotonou, Benin, April 7, 1999.

56 Human Rights Watch interview, Hon. Maurice Glélé Ahanhanzo, constitutional court judge, Cotonou, Benin, April 8, 1999.

57 Ibid.

Human Rights Watch World Report 2001

Africa: Current Events Focus Pages

The Latest News - Archive













Sierra Leone

South Africa







Copyright © 2001
Human Rights Watch