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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






    The CNDH presents a rather impressive summary of its promotional and educational activities over the decade, including seminars, participation in radio and television programs, and the planning of several conferences. Starting in 1992, its first year, the commission organized "education and information" seminars in Douala in July and in Bertoua in August. These seminars consisted of public sessions directed at participants in all social sectors. In its publication, Five-Year Summary of Activities 1992-1997, the commission evaluates the seminars:
    The two seminars at Douala and Bertoua quickly revealed the limits of seminars open in all directions. In effect, it seemed that for many participants, these fora were an opportunity for mutual accusations of human rights violations. From then on the commission decided to give more attention to training seminars for carefully chosen groups, whose activities have direct influence on human rights and who are likely to play a role in the promotion and defense of human rights.68

    Future training seminars targeting specific groups were later organized in this manner. A seminar for the training personnel of Central Province government administrators and law enforcement officers was organized in Yaounde in July 1994. A similar seminar was organized for administrative and police officers in the Northwest and Southwest provinces, in Bamenda in March 1995 and in Buea in May 1996, respectively. In November 1997 in Maroua, the seminar was held in the Far North province.

    The commission has also worked on integrating human rights courses in the school curriculum in Cameroon. Toward this end, the president of the commission participated in a National Education Forum held in May 1995 in Yaounde. He also held meetings with experts from the National Center for Research on Education in Yaounde.

    The NCHRF's record in the area of human rights protection activities is much weaker. According to the 1990 decree, the commission "hears all claims pertaining to human rights violations."69 It is furthermore responsible for undertaking "all inquiries" and initiating "all necessary investigations in cases of human rights and liberties violations."70 There is no restriction as to the origin or the form of claims: they may come from victims, witnesses, parents of victims, individuals or NGOs. They may be given orally or in writing and may be signed or anonymous. In principle, the claims are distributed to members of the commission by its president for evaluation and eventual investigation with no time limit for the completion of a report. The reports produced by the NCHRF generally consist of recommendations to the executive body (minister, chief of police, chief of local territorial administration, etc) directly concerned with the case.

    The NCHRF's Five-Year Summary of Activities 1992-1997 indicates numerous visits to detention sites, penitentiaries, and cells in police and gendarme stations. These visits have become, according to the NCHRF, "one of the Commission's regular activities."71 Although in fact, the NCHRF's prison visits now occur infrequently.
    At the outset, the NCHRF played a more dynamic protection role, intervening on behalf of victims. The NCHRF's first visits on May 7, 1992 was to the central gendarme station in Yaounde, to investigate charges of torture against protesters who had been arrested after a rally in the North-West Province (the seat of the political opposition) to commemorate youth day. The NCHRF delegates were at first denied access and had to protest before being allowed to meet the detainees, and were themselves detained for an hour in the station by agents who confiscated their work materials. In Yaounde, the NCHRF continued to push for the release of the student leaders who eventually were let go after several days. The NCHRF protested election fraud and violence between demonstrators and security forces that resulted in the detention without trial for over one year of some protesters. When a state of emergency was declared by the government in 1992 in North-West Province, the NCHRF did protest by writing a report and sending it to the government.

    These actions on behalf of victims resulted in the Ministry of Finance significantly reducing funding to the NCHRF for two years and blaming the NCHRF for the withholding of aid to the Cameroon government by international donors.72 The reduction in funding and the pressure executive branch appear to have had the desired effect in reducing the NCHRF's subsequent activities.

    Currently, the commission deals largely with non-state (private) complaints, rather than state violations of human rights. The NCHRF infrequently makes public statements about government abuses, although its staff have intervened with government officials in specific cases, including to prevent arrests and to obtain medical care for medical suspects. In non-state cases, the commission often closes its intervention by mediating between the two parties.73 In this regard, Human Rights Watch was able to note that a fair number of the recorded cases concern work-related claims between employees and employers. In these cases, the commission's action consists of legal advice, proposing means of reparation such as recourse to the tribunal, or mediation. The commission justifies its intervention in these claims by invoking its interest in economic and social rights, and because of the need to contribute to maintaining the peace.74

    It is important to note that letters received by the NCHRF, such as those from Amnesty International activists, in the context of a protest action are also recorded as "individual claims." This method leads to an exaggeration of the number of claims received. Thus the records of the commission show, for example, 834 claims in 1999 (as of November 22, 1999). In reality, more than three quarters of these cases are letters received from Amnesty International members or other organizations such as Reporters Sans Frontières [Reporters Without Borders], regarding the arrest of one journalist, Pius Njawe, at the beginning of the year.75 Given that a good number of the remaining claims are individual labor-related claims or conflicts between individuals without any governmental involvement, the number of claims addressed to the Committee of state violations is minimal.76

    Several reasons explain the small number of human rights claims presented to the NCHRF by Cameroonians. First, in spite of almost ten years of existence, most Cameroonians are unaware of the Commission. As of 1999, the Commission had a single office in Yaounde, which is itself was little known, even in the city. The members of the Commission, conscious of this, have listed the "creation of branches in the provinces" as a priority in the `NCHRF's Plan of Action for 1999-2000' of March 10, 1999.77

    Second, and perhaps more importantly, the NCHRF does not publish reports of its inquiries or interventions to protect human rights. Several NGO activists interviewed by Human Rights Watch were surprised to read in the NCHRF's Five-Year Summary of Activities 1992-1997 that the commission had conducted numerous inquiries and field investigations between 1992 and 1997, specifically in cases of political violence, inter-ethnic conflicts, and riots.78 It is clear that the restriction of the commission's reporting to the "relevant authorities" contributes to public ignorance of the commission's activities, and even of its existence.

    Finally, national human rights NGOs play little or no collaborative or consultative role in the NCHRF's protection activities. This has created a vicious circle in which the NCHRF does not work with the NGOs because the latter do not present claims to it, and the NGOs ignore the NCHRF because it does not work with them.

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