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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

    Like a number of countries in Francophone Africa, Chad experienced a significant political opening during the early 1990s. Single party rule formally ended and a national conference was held to lay out the conditions for transition to democracy and the rule of law. Independent human rights organizations were created. The Commission Nationale des Droits de l'Homme [National Human Rights Commission] (CNDH) was born of this short-lived window of opportunity. The idea and, eventually, the text for the commission came at the initiative of human rights activists in the NGO Ligue Tchadienne de Droits de l'Homme [Chadian Human Rights League] (LTDH) which was created in February 1991. In 1993, the National Conference, which brought together state and non-state actors to chart the democratization process, formally proposed the establishment of a human rights commission.

    But the political conditions and the culture of the ruling elite in Chad were not particularly conducive to the transition. Idriss Deby, the president of the country since 1990, is the most recent in a long line of mostly Northern leaders who came to power through military means and the support of foreign powers. He succeeded Hissene Habre, whose abusive reign ended with a wave of killing and torture. The French, who maintain their largest African military presence in Chad, have been a necessary support to each succeeding power. A military insurgency in the south of the country was suppressed with massive casualties to the civilian population. A low level insurgency in the north currently has the government apprehensive. The security forces continue to commit serious human rights violations.

    In addition to the violent conflict between north and south, reports of vote-rigging and fraud characterized both the 1996 presidential elections and 1997 parliamentary elections, in which members of the ruling party won 65 of 125 seats. A coalition formed between the two largest political groups has effectively reduced the parliamentary opposition to two deputies. The more outspoken of the two, Yarongar Ngarlejy, spent much of 1999 in jail on charges of criminal defamation related to statements he made about ethnic favoritism and corruption in connection with a major oil project that has the potential to double the annual government revenues. His arrest is part of what the rapporteur for the U.N. Commission on Human Rights called, the increasing "monopoly" ["monolithisme"] in public debate.83

    In contrast to this relative political stagnation, the civil society has flourished in Chad. Development organizations and human rights associations have taken a lead role in organizing communities and pressing for change. Newspapers, at least in the capital of Ndjamena, have consistently pushed the limits of government control.

    The CNDH was created as a national institution to link civil society and government agencies.84 Looking to its former colonial power, the Chadian national assembly adopted a law in 1994 that provided for a mixed governmental-nongovernmental body modeled on the French advisory commission for human rights.85 The CNDH began operations in March 1995.86 Technically located in the office of the prime minister, the CNDH was to benefit from substantial autonomy, secured by its diverse membership, freedom to determine the subjects of investigation, and obligation to publish results. In contrast to many of the other national institutions in Africa, it does not have formal independence. Rather, it is attached to the office of the prime minister, which is required to fund and staff the secretariat. Nevertheless, the law and regulations governing the CNDH are intended to promote its independence vis-à-vis the government and political parties.

    This is particularly clear in provisions that elaborate criteria for members which stress, for example, the "independence, credibility and confidentiality of the Commission" and declare incompatible any other function that subjects a member to the discretion of the government.87 From its inception, the commission has fought to assert its independence, rejecting offices offered by the prime minister and the national assembly in order to obtain its own site in a location more accessible by the public.

    Under the 1994 law, the mandate of the CNDH is:

76. to advise the government on human rights matters (Article 3(a));

77. provide assistance to national and international institutions concerned with human rights in Chad (Article 3(b)); and

78. participate in the revision and drafting of laws to render them consistent with the Bill of Rights (Charte des droits de l'homme) adopted by the National Conference as well as regional and international human rights treaties.

In a reflection of the long history of secret detention, torture and "disappearance" in Chad, the law requires the commission, particular, to issue opinions on these subjects: practices of political police (police politique); the practice of torture, inhuman and degrading treatment; the existence of places of secret detention; and forced disappearances and secret transfers. (Article 5(a-d))

    At the same time, the law insists on the autonomy of the commission and its "right of initiative." Article 6 provides that the CNDH is autonomous as to the choice of issues that it examines . . . at its own initiative (par auto-saisine). The CNDH is entirely free with regard to its opinions which it transmits to the government and for which it ensures dissemination to the public.

    This authority is noted again in a 1996 presidential decree that details the provisions for the CNDH to treat private complaints: "Notwithstanding the right of initiative recognized to the commission, any person who deems himself the victim of a human rights violation . . . may address the commission."88 The commission can take complaints for state or non-state human rights violations. The complaint must name the violator. Cases pending before the courts cannot be investigated except where there is a "manifest denial of justice." (Article 12). The directorate of the CNDH must meet within a week of receiving the complaint to name a rapporteur to investigate. The rapporteur has recourse to broad authority, roughly equivalent to subpoena power that includes access to individuals, places, objects and documents linked to the investigation; the rapporteur must be accorded the cooperation of government authorities, including direct superiors of any implicated government official. The authority to resolve complaints is less clear. A report must be made by the rapporteur to the CNDH within twenty days at which point the commission meets to take necessary measures which might include recourse to the courts, the parliament, or the president (Article 15).
    In addition to these powers linked to individual complaints, the commission has broad authority to effectuate its general mission. Under Article 11 of the 1994 law, for example, the commission has "free access to any governmental or nongovernmental institution in order to obtain useful information and/or any verifications necessitated by its mission." The president of the commission may also request government ministries to undertake studies for them. Finally, the law and decree regulations note on several occasions the right and obligation of the commission to publicize its work.89

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