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 overwhelming bulk of the CHRAJ's work is to receive and address complaints in written or oral form. Once a complaint is received, an investigator or legal officer will determine whether the complaint has merit and falls within the mandate. The CHRAJ has attempted to ensure that its regional offices are able to receive complaints in the local languages of the region. Through correspondence or on-site visits, the case is followed up. Approximately half the cases are resolved through negotiation and compromise. If a case is not resolved, the CHRAJ must hold a panel hearing chaired by a lawyer to issue a recommendation, a procedure delayed somewhat by the shortage of staff lawyers. There is no separate mechanism for following up whether there has been compliance with a particular recommendation.

    In 1995, the CHRAJ received 6,173 complaints and completed action in over 3,700 from 1995 and previous years. By 1996, the CHRAJ had received a total of 12,409 complaints and completed action in 8,775, mostly through mediation. In 1997, the CHRAJ received 5,876 complaints. On average, between 4,000 and 5,000 new petitions are received each year. The bulk of the cases are labor-related, mostly dismissal cases against the state, which is the largest employer, but also against private employers such as the gold mining corporation. According to Commissioner Short, "these cases should really be dealt with by an independent labor tribunal, but since we don't have such a body, they come to us instead of the Department of Labour."108 Almost a quarter of the cases are property related, mostly landlord-tenant disputes. Another quarter are related to fundamental human rights violations such as wrongful arrest and detention, ill-treatment, and other abuses. A smaller number are family related, dealing largely with inheritance or child and spouse maintenance.

    The CHRAJ tries as much as possible to assist even on matters where it has no formal jurisdiction. An interesting aspect of the CHRAJ's work is that the bulk of its activities are directed at rectifying complaints against private actors (non-state parties) such as employers, landlords, and errant husbands. Although this expands the traditional, and more narrow, interpretation of human rights protection work, its role in this regard has been accepted and even welcomed by Ghanaians. Sometimes, the CHRAJ refers complainants that it cannot address to human rights or legal aid NGOs. However, as much as possible, the CHRAJ staff attempt to help people, particularly in the rural areas where the CHRAJ is often the only place people can obtain advice. This accommodating approach has contributed to building public confidence in the CHRAJ as a responsive institution

    The enforcement powers of the CHRAJ are broad. The commissioner can bring a case to court if a recommendation by the CHRAJ has not been complied with within three months. In practice, this power has been used very little. It has been a matter of debate whether the court's role is to rehear the case in its entirety or merely to reenforce the CHRAJ's decision, barring any irregularity in the CHRAJ's handling of the case. The CHRAJ and the High Court have generally interpreted the law to mean the latter, and only once has a High Court judge reopened the substance of the case.

    In addition to receiving complaints, the CHRAJ has been proactive about conducting a range of investigations on its own initiative. For example, in 1995, the CHRAJ carried out a nationwide inspection of all prisons and police lock-ups. Prisons in Ghana, in most cases, are very poorly maintained and conditions are extremely harsh. In 1996, the CHRAJ issued a report of its findings and has since conducted annual follow-up visits. The report described unsanitary and overcrowded prisons and recommended, among other things, an increase in the feeding allowance and the separation of juvenile prisoners from the adults. Although the government concurred with the findings and complied with the above recommendations, it cited resource constraints from preventing further improvements. The report also recommended the abolition of the death penalty and improvements in the administration of criminal justice after finding that many detainees had been held for years without being brought to trial. Although the CHRAJ had no jurisdiction to investigate a matter pending in court, it intervened to ensure the speedy completion of these cases by bringing them to the attention of the attorney-general's office in 1997. Over a year later, a committee set up by the attorney-general was still investigating how the remanded prisoners could either be brought to trial quickly or released. The CHRAJ's intervention in the prisons was all the more important because the government had restricted access to the press. Since then, the Ghana prisons service council has formed an assessment team to inspect facilities.

    In 1996, at the invitation of the president, the CHRAJ conducted investigations into allegations of corruption, embezzlement, and abuse of office against four high-ranking government officials. An investigation of this manner had never occurred in Ghana before and proved highly controversial. The CHRAJ completed its report in October 1996, detailing adverse findings against three (two ministers and a staff member in the president's office) and exonerating the fourth, which resulted in the resignation of the three guilty parties. The report evoked a defensive and aggressive response from some quarters of government, calling into question the mandate of the CHRAJ. The government went so far as to issue a white paper in April 1997 which rejected some of the CHRAJ's findings and recommended that its interpretations of the law should be reviewed by the attorney-general's office. Attacks against Commissioner Short and the CHRAJ for exposing the corruption were carried in the government-owned media. The government sought to stop the CHRAJ from ordering redress in cases of arbitrary dismissal prior to the restoration of civilian rule. The CHRAJ issued a rebuttal to the white paper and requested a supreme court interpretation of its mandate. In August 1997, the supreme court decided in favor of the CHRAJ concerning its right to investigate matters preceding the 1992 constitution, however, the court ruled that the commission did not have jurisdiction to investigate property confiscated by the special courts or tribunals set up by military decree following the coup and during PNDC rule. Following an upsurge of public support for the CHRAJ, the government was obliged to retract its attack on the CHRAJ and to make public reassurances that the CHRAJ was at liberty to take whatever steps were necessary to enforce its recommendations. It also accepted the CHRAJ's recommendations to expand the category of public officers required by law to declare their assets, laws regulating the waiver of customs, and the reevaluation of duties levied on fish imports. In the meantime, the CHRAJ continued its work along the same lines, submitting an interim report in November 1997 dismissing allegations of corruption against a senior government official of the Cocoa Board.

    This situation has not been the only one where the CHRAJ has had to withstand pressure from other government agencies that have attempted to silence it. The ministry of justice and the attorney-general's office have attempted to narrow the CHRAJ's jurisdiction by arguing that the CHRAJ should not deal with any violations occurring before the new constitution took effect and by asserting that it cannot investigate certain confiscations of property by the special military courts under the previous administration.

    The CHRAJ has also addressed harmful traditional practices that violate the rights of women and children. The CHRAJ has worked with traditional leaders and local NGOs to help secure the release of women and girls held in labor and sexual servitude to fetish priests in the Volta region under a practice known as Trokosi.109 These women and girls are sent to shrines to serve the fetish priests as a punishment for transgressions by their family. The CHRAJ has secured the release of some women and girls and conducted public education against the practice. Similarly, the CHRAJ has investigated the banishment and even lynching of women accused of being witches in the northern region. A September 1997 CHRAJ investigation identified hundreds of elderly women living in camps where they had been driven from their communities. The commission has conducted public education against this practice in conjunction with the Center for National Culture and the House of Chiefs. The CHRAJ has also intervened on behalf of sick children whose parents refuse the necessary medical treatment on religious grounds (such as the Jehovah's Witnesses).

    The CHRAJ's public education activities have been carried out through seminars and workshops aimed at public officials and others, including the military, civil servants, district assembly members, women's groups, religious bodies, youth groups, chiefs. Responding to the large numbers of labor-related complaints, the CHRAJ has made this issue a focus of its public education programs. Public awareness programs in the rural areas are being conducted to address the lower level of complaints in the rural areas since 1997 and to educate the public on the 1992 constitution and to identify means of redress when rights are violated. The media also helps to promote the CHRAJ through its frequent coverage of the CHRAJ's work.

Human Rights Watch World Report 2001

Africa: Current Events Focus Pages

The Latest News - Archive













Sierra Leone

South Africa







Copyright © 2001
Human Rights Watch