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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

The National Commission on Human Rights and Freedoms (NCHRF) was created by presidential decree in 1990. Like earlier commissions in Benin and Togo, the NCHRF was formed at a time of popular demands for greater democracy. However, the NCHRF did not play the same sort of dynamic role that the Togolese commission did in furthering the democratization process. It was one of the first bodies to be set up as part of a program towards greater democracy announced through decree by President Biya in December 1990,58 but its limited mandate and appointments procedures, in particular, reflect his concern to retain tight executive control over all state institutions. The general political climate in Cameroon also, in practice, mitigates against an effective human rights role for the NCHRF.

Cameroon has been ruled since independence by the Cameroon People's Democratic Movement (CPDM), whose hold on power, despite the move to a multiparty system in 1990, has been maintained by limiting political choice. Thus, presidential and parliamentary elections have routinely been marred by irregularities and opposition parties. In part due to this marginalization, the principal opposition parties have actively, and on occasion violently, contested the manner of democratization. The most recent election, in October 1997, was boycotted by the three main opposition parties amid allegations of electoral fraud. President Biya was returned to power for a new seven year term, in accordance with a 1996 constitutional amendment. This lengthened the presidential term of office and also cleared the way for Biya to stand again for a further term in 2004. The Government has taken no formal action to implement other 1996 constitutional changes that provide for a more independent legislature and judiciary. Security forces have been responsible for torture and harassment of the political opposition and local human rights activists among others. Although the government has prosecuted some of the most egregious offenders, most remain unpunished. The judiciary also lacks independence, being marked by corruption, inefficiency, and vulnerability to political influence, and civilians have been subjected to unfair trials by military tribunal.59

The NCHRF's mandate includes, among other things, the capacity to "conduct allinquiries and necessary investigations on the violation of human rights and freedoms," but limits it by requiring it to only "report to the President of the Republic." The NCHRF can conduct human rights studies as well as conduct human rights education and coordinate NGO actions in human rights. It is also empowered to visit detention sites.60

The commission's powers are extremely weak. It can do no more than make recommendations to the competent authorities, but these are not binding. Article 8 of the founding decree provides that the NCHRF cannot release its annual report on the state of human rights and summary of its activities to the public, but must submit this only to the head of state. For almost ten years, this provision was scrupulously respected. No reports of the NCHRF were made public, although there were periodic leaks to the press, but in March 1999, the commission's general assembly decided to make public all the reports it had submitted to the president.61 Following this, a public ceremony was held on July 1, 1999, attended by diplomats, members of the government, members of parliament and the public, at which the commission made public a summary of its activities over five years and copies of its two annual reports to the president, one assessing the state of human rights in Cameroon and the other documenting the commission's own activities.

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