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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 development of state institutions to promote and protect human rights is a critical safeguard to ensure that people can obtain recourse and redress in the face of injustice. A dynamic and autonomous human rights commission can play a role in this process. For that reason, it is important that existing human rights commissions are encouraged to play an active and central role in the upholding of human rights. In some cases, where the political will is present, this task requires only training and funding opportunities. In other cases, greater pressure on a government is required for it to allow formal and actual independence of its human rights commission. Human rights commissioners also need to be supported and pushed by the international community to push the limit of their boundaries and to withstand the inevitable resistance from other government agencies. This is a process that can only be achieved with sustained national and international attention over a period of time.

      The success by a human rights commission can only be measured through its actions. Some of the questions that need to asked are:

    12. Does it have the will and the means to perform the tasks given it by law?

    13. Has it succeeded in gaining public as opposed to formal legitimacy?

    14. What are the conditions for it to become an effective and trusted part of the human rights machinery?

    15. How does it make itself accessible to the most vulnerable sections of society?

    16. How far does its effectiveness derive from the bridges it is able to build with other institutions in society, governmental and nongovernmental?

      More importantly, are the individuals who serve within a human rights commission able to institutionalize their contribution in a lasting fashion or does a dynamic commission fade with the departure of the person heading it? Building an enduring human rights institution that will become an integral part of government is the greatest challenge for human rights commissioners and their proponents. That long-term contribution has yet to occur in Africa. In many cases it is still too soon. In other cases, it is clear that the human rights commission is falling short of achieving this goal. At this time, the independence and effectiveness of the human rights commissions within Africa depend heavily on the personality of the individuals heading the commission.

      Another question that needs to be asked is whether the international community is playing as constructive a role as it can in contributing towards strong and sustainable national human rights institutions? It is a mistake to view the creation of a human rights commission, in and of itself, as a contribution towards human rights. The ability of a national human rights commission to function effectively is enhanced by independent judicial and legislative branches as well as a vocal civil society. A more nuanced approach by the international community is required. International support should be based on the records of the commissions, and weak or compliant institutions should be pushed to play a stronger role. A weak human rights commission that seeks to absolve or shield a government of its abuses through inaction may do more harm than its token or potential presence may justify. Additionally, international support for human rights commissions should be given as part of an integrated system of support for judicial independence and independent human rights NGOs.

      Finally, it should be noted that a human rights commission is not a prerequisite for a government to uphold the human rights of its citizens. Other state institutions, such as an independent judiciary or a representative legislature, can equally provide oversight to ensure recourse and redress to human rights abuses. In fact, many countries with strong records of respect for human rights do not have such commissions. The creation of a national human rights commission can be an important mechanism for strengthening human rights protection, but it is not enough. It can never replace or diminish the safeguards inherent in an independent legal system and disciplined law enforcement forces.

Human Rights Watch World Report 2001

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