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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

    On July 19, 1997, Liberia's seven year war was finally ended through a U.N.-sanctioned election that swept former faction leader Charles Taylor and his party into power with 75 percent of the vote and a corresponding 75 percent majority in the legislature, giving him seventy of the ninety legislative seats. Ultimately, over a dozen peace accords and almost twenty cease-fire agreements were signed during the countless negotiations for peace that led to the elections.

Despite the presence of regional peacekeepers from 1990, the ECOWAS Cease-Fire Monitoring Organization (ECOMOG) , joined by a U.N. military observer mission in 1993, fighting resumed numerous times during the war, and the number of factions proliferated over the years.

    All the factions to different degrees were responsible for terrorizing the local populations in order to look and to discourage support for local factions. The widespread atrocities against civilians included extrajudicial executions, torture, including rape, forced labor, and extortion. The factions consisted predominantly of bands of armed fighters, some as young as ten years of age, with no formal military training. The repeated breakdown of the peace process can be attributed to a number of factions including the internal factionalization of the warring factions along ethnic lines, and their economic and political incentives for continuing the war. The proliferation of these groups was encouraged by the creation and support of anti-Taylor factions by the former government army and ECOMOG.

    While the end of the war brought much needed peace and security to the country, the Taylor government inherited a devastated country. Tens of thousands of Liberians were killed during the fighting. Almost half the population was displaced and the country's infrastructure was virtually destroyed. The transition period offered an opportunity to develop new state institutions with strong human rights components integrated into their structure, and to create mechanisms to secure and enforce human rights throughout the society. In his victory and inauguration speeches, President Taylor declared his intention to head a government that respected human rights and announced that he would create a human rights commission and a commission on reconciliation.

    However, within a short time it became clear that the Taylor government was not committed to establishing state institutions based on the rule of law and respect for human rights. Since the Taylor government took office, Liberians have been subjected to human rights abuses by government police and security forces as well as violence at the hands of two Liberian rebel incursions in 1999. Almost three years after the elections that brought Charles Taylor to power, the situation in Liberia remains fragile. The incomplete implementation of the peace accords, particularly with regard to demobilization; a general amnesty to faction fighters for egregious abuses committed "in the course of actual military engagements;" and the wholesale enrollment of fighters from Taylor's former faction into the country's restructured police and security forces contributed to make this situation increasingly more volatile. Human rights NGOs and the independent media continually come under attack by Taylor government officials.

    Almost immediately, the process to form the Human Rights Commission in 1997 caused considerable controversy because of the lack of a consultative process and a draft issued by the president's office that restricted the commission's ability to compel testimony, gather evidence or directly petition, and denied it budgetary support.

    The U.N. post-conflict unit in Liberia and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights attempted to provide advice on the draft bill but were largely dismissed or ignored by the legal advisor in the president's office. Similarly, following international pressure, local NGOs were given just twenty-four hours to make comments, and their suggestions were largely disregarded. Through the process, the legal advisor in the president's office was reportedly hostile toward both the local NGO and U.N. input. He openly questioned the necessity of soliciting the advice of experts, and tried to push the draft legislation through as quickly as possibly, by reportedly saying that "something is better than nothing." He reportedly also said that many of the proposed amendments of the revised draft submitted by the NGOs were not acceptable to his office and described the bill as "an attempt to tie the hands of the President." He justified the lack of subpoena and enforcement powers of the Commission by claiming that those powers were unnecessary, since they belonged to the judiciary.135

    Despite all the protests, the president's bill was passed into law in October 1997. The draft legislation that was passed by the legislature contained many of the flaws that had been protested by the U.N. and the local NGO community. The Human Rights Commission is given the ability to conduct hearings and make findings of act as well as to take some corrective measures, although their scope is unclear. The law is also silent on subpoena powers and types of possible complaints. Moreover, the commission is expressly prohibited from engaging in any political or advocacy activities which might influence legislation. This is problematic since one of the main functions of a human rights commission usually is to harmonize domestic laws and policies with international human rights standards. There are no requirements for pluralistic representation, nor are there any educational or professional requirements. Also, the act requires decision-making based on consensus which may paralyze the commission. The independence of the Human Rights Commission is seriously undermined by the fact that it receives no sustainable government funding. Funding is given at the whim of the president and can be used as an instrument of control.136

    International and local groups responded to the flawed act by initiating a consultation process to propose amendments to the existing law. The international NGO, the Carter Center, organized a consultative meeting in March 1998 with ninety-seven participants from the government and civil society as well as the heads of the Ghanaian and Ugandan commissions to serve as resource persons. The consultation identified specific provisions that needed to be amended in the law and drafted the amendments in consultation with the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

    Following this pressure, the government introduced an amendment to the law in 1998 which empowered the commission to reach decision through a majority vote, allowed review of a decision only by the supreme court, and gave the right to subpoena witnesses.137 The draft bill went through various committee in the legislature, however, it was never fully passed by the legislature, leaving the flawed 1997 legislation to stand.

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