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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 case of Liberia shows the utter impotency of a human rights commission which depends entirely upon a government that is not committed to improving human rights. The Human Rights Commission exists in name only. Its leadership is weak, and there is no commitment on the part of the government to empower it with resources or personnel. Since its creation in 1997, the Human Rights Commission has been paralyzed by the Taylor government through its flawed legislation, inadequate funding, and political pressure. Only two of the mandated five members were confirmed a year later in 1998. Three subsequent nominees have yet to be confirmed by the senate.

    In its short time of existence, the Human Rights Commission has taken little or no action other than to set up its offices. The commission is empowered by its founding statute to do very little, and in practice seems to do even less. For example, while the commission is supposed to prepare reports on the situation of human rights in Liberia to be released internationally, those reports have yet to be seen. In addition to its restrictive mandate and minimal activities, the commission is further hindered by a lack of resources and qualified personnel. The perceived incompetence of the commissioners is yet another factor that adds to the lack of confidence in the commission.

    The head of the commission has repeatedly complained that he is unable to take any action due to the lack of funding. The commission's chair Justice Hall Badio told Human Rights Watch that he had repeatedly attempted to seek an audience with the president or his aides to beg for funding and had been repeatedly been rebuffed. He said: "If the president winks his eye at you, everyone winks his eye at you. If the president frowns at you, everyone frowns at you. Everyone knows what the president thinks of this commission."140

    While resources are clearly a problem, Liberian human rights activists point out that the Human Rights Commission's only public statements bemoan the lack of funding and appear not to be particularly concerned with any substantive issue of human rights. Moreover, they question the allocation of funding that has been received, pointing out that the commission has spent what funding it did have on renovating an ornate building in Monrovia and hiring a support staff of some thirty persons, even though the commission is not functioning due to its lack of funding and competency.

    The commissioners have also sought to avoid any controversy with the executive branch and have remained silent about serious abuses that are occurring in Liberia. Kofi Woods of the Justice and Peace Commission, who had declined his own nomination to the Human Rights Commission, concluded that the commissioners "are afraid to be seen challenging government."141 This was, in fact, confirmed to Human Rights Watch by the commission's chair Justice Hall Badio who stated that he began to fear for his life after security forces visited his home three times, harassing him and his wife and warning him not to embarrass the government.142

    The Taylor government has been using strong arm tactics to silence any publicity about his human rights violations. Government officials regularly denounce the efforts by human rights groups to monitor the country or improve the human rights situation on the ground and accuse human rights groups for being responsible for the lack of international donor aid to Liberia. Members of the Taylor government have gone as far as calling human rights activists "enemies" of the state.

    Local human rights NGOs refuse to cooperate with the commission based on what they see as its illegitimacy due to the weak founding legislation and the refusal of the president and his aides to genuinely consult with local human rights NGOs in its creation. Kofi Woods called the Human Rights Commission "toothless" and pointed out that the commission "has not spoken out against any one of the repressive actions carried out by the government against anyone."143

    International donors have, without exception, refused to give any funding to the Human Rights Commission and instead have chosen to work with local human rights NGOs. The Carter Center, for example, had originally planned to help the Commission extensively but "redirected [their] resources when it became apparent there was not enough to work with."144 The lack of an effective Human Rights Commission is one, even though not the only one, benchmark for the donor community as they attempt to assess the political performance of the Taylor government and its commitment to democracy and good governance.

    In its three years of formal existence, the Liberian Human Rights Commission has yet to establish a credible presence within the country or outside of it. With little or no activities to recommend it, the commission is shunned by human rights activists at home, and by the international community that sees it for what it is and refuses to fund it - a charade for the Taylor government to assert its commitment to human rights.

Human Rights Watch World Report 2001

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