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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





    Innovative and Positive Contributions by Commissions

      While there are countless ways in which a human rights commission can contribute towards strengthening the culture of human rights in their country, the following two examples in South Africa and Ghana highlight different ways in which the human rights commissions have engaged and involved their societies to address a human rights problem. Both examples also illustrate how resource constraints can be overcome by joining forces to build capacity.

    South Africa: Training Human Rights Activists

      In addition to the far reaching work on a variety of human rights issues facing South Africa, the South African Human Rights Commission has been open to innovative research projects aimed at training aspiring human rights activists and increasing the research capacity of the commission. One of the most interesting of these projects dealt with the treatment of undocumented refugees and migrants in South Africa. Human rights abuse against undocumented aliens, asylum seekers and refuges in South Africa is a major problem, fueled by rising levels of xenophobia and violence against foreigners in the country. Human Rights Watch and other groups have published detailed reports documenting abuses against these vulnerable groups, calling on the South African government to take steps to combat these abuses.15
      Since its inception, the commission has focused a significant amount of resources on the human rights of those within the migration system, publishing several short reports and taking the lead in developing a national strategy to combat xenophobia. Two of the most common and serious human rights abuses committed against undocumented migrants were widespread police abuse and extortion, and a consistent pattern of abuses committed at the private Lindela detention center outside Johannesburg.

      In order to substantiate these allegations of abuse made in the media and by human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, the commission entered into a creative partnership with several law schools in South Africa. Working closely with the Center for Applied Legal Studies, the Law Clinic of the University of Witwatersrand, and Lawyers for Human Rights, an independent NGO, the commission participated in a research project on human rights abuses against aliens in February 1998, which relied mostly on closely supervised law students to conduct the research. Law students were selected among third- and final-year law students at the University of Witwatersrand, and among LL.M. (masters of law) students at the University of Pretoria. Commissioner Jody Kollapen, together with professionals of the Center for Applied Legal Studies, the Law Clinic and Lawyers for Human Rights, conducted a detailed workshop for the volunteering law students, providing them with basic interviewing and research skills. The students then used carefully designed questionnaires to conduct interviews with 151 detainees at Lindela, and an additional forty interviews with family and friends of detainees outside the facility.
      The interviews formed the basis for a highly credible and detailed report written largely by the NGOs, confirming a variety of abusive practices against undocumented migrants during the arrest and detention process. The commission's report reinforced the findings of international human rights groups which had been under attack by the Ministry of Home Affairs, responsible for migrant and refugee affairs. As stated by the commission in its report, the innovative use of the law students also had several other benefits in addition to a well-researched report. The training and use of volunteer students provided resources beyond those of the commission for the purpose of the investigation. It also created potentially significant long-term benefits by generating interest in human rights issues among a variety of law schools and facilities, and produce a cadre of trained and minimally experienced human rights workers.

    Ghana: Working with NGOs and Traditional Chiefs on Women's Rights

      The Ghanaian Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ) has proactively worked to address harmful traditional practices against women and girls. Not only is its work in this regard illustrative in its decision to address this frequently overlooked human rights abuse, but also because of its advocacy approach in working closely with both traditional authorities who wield a lot of power in local matters as well as local NGOs to seek solutions.

      As elsewhere in Africa, some traditional practices still result in considerable discrimination against women and girls in Ghana. Although the Ghanaian Constitution and 1997 amendments to the 1960 Penal Code outlaw discrimination and slavery, harmful traditional practices continue largely because of deeply entrenched community beliefs that are unlikely to be eliminated by legislative prohibitions alone. This is precisely why attention to such an issue by a state body, which can conduct sustained education and advocacy work, is valuable.

      In 1995, the commission undertook a joint project with a local NGO for the abolition of the practice of Trokosi. Trokosi, a traditional practice found among the Ewe ethnic group primarily in the Volta region, is a violation of children's and women's rights. It is a system in which a young girl, usually under the age of ten, is made a slave to a fetish shrine for offenses allegedly committed by a member of the girl's family. The belief is that if someone in that family has committed a crime, such as stealing, members of the family may begin to die in large numbers unless a young virgin girl is given to the local fetish shrine to atone for the offense. Most Trokosi girls and women are condemned to a lifetime of hard labor, sexual servitude, and perpetual childbearing at the service of the village priest. There are an estimated 3,500 girls and women bound to various shrines in the Trokosi system, a figure that does not include the slaves' children. Even if released, generally without skills or hope of marriage, a Trokosi woman often has continued obligations to the shrine for the duration of her life. In some cases when the fetish slave dies, the family is expected to replace her with another young girl for the fetish shrine. Some women in the shrines today represent the fifth successive generation to pay for a crime.16
      Over the past few years, the CHRAJ has conducted an awareness campaign with traditional leaders and practitioners in an effort to bring the practice to an end. Since 1997, a new law passed by Parliament bans the practice of "customary servitude." The CHRAJ's educational and advocacy efforts, taken in conjunction with International Needs Ghana, a local NGO, to approach village authorities and fetish priests has been effective. The work of the CHRAJ and other nongovernmental organizations has resulted in the release of approximately 1,200 slaves by the end of 1998, many of whom were given counseling and retrained for new professions.

      Another traditional abuse that occurs in Ghana is the practice of banishment and forced labor by traditional village authorities of predominantly rural elder women for suspected witchcraft. Hundreds of women accused of witchcraft were sent to penal villages in the northern region by traditional authorities. According to reports, two villages contained 400 elderly women and one village contained 2,000 women and family members, all sentenced by a village male or chief who claimed to have the power to divine witches. Although the women face no formal legal sanction if they leave, most fear that they would be beaten to death if caught. The CHRAJ issued a report on its investigations of a "witches" camp in northern region. The report detailed the living conditions of the women in the camps and proposed ways to reintegrate them into society, through an educational campaign in conjunction with the Center for National Culture and the House of Chiefs. The CHRAJ and human rights NGOs have mounted a campaign not only to persuade custodians of the "witches'" homes to abolish the practice, but also to educate communities to allow the women to return safely to their homes.17

      The CHRAJ's willingness to work closely with the NGO community as an ally and its approach in fostering a constructive dialogue with traditional leaders, a constituency often overlooked by human rights activists, are both approaches that should be lauded. Through its efforts the CHRAJ has built awareness of human rights standards among chiefs and other traditional authorities, sent a message that a government body will not condone traditional practices that violate constitutional and international law, has legitimized and strengthened local NGO efforts on this issue, and has fostered a constructive working relationship with the NGO movement.

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