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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






    To African Governments

    17. The decision to create a human rights commission should not be an automatic one. Governments should assess the state of the current government institutions that deal with rights abuses, such as an ombudsman or the judiciary, and determine whether and how a human rights commission would improve the procedure for dealing with human rights abuses or simply add another bureaucratic layer to the existing system. The process to create a human rights commission should be broad and consultative. The government should solicit participation from the human rights NGO community which is often the best placed to identify patterns of abuses and suggestions for possible qualified commissioners.

    18. Establish a human rights commission that will streamline and make more accessible the overall procedure for reporting and dealing with human rights violations, in compliance with the U.N. Principles relating to the Status of National Institutions (the Paris Principles) that recommend, among other things, a broad mandate, a founding constitutional or legislative statute, an independent appointments procedures, and adequate funding.

    19. Provide independent decision-making, investigative, and enforcement capacity to the human rights commission to enable it to independently initiate investigations, to have unhindered access to witnesses, documents, or locations, to demand cooperation from other government agencies, to set its own priorities without restraint from any other government agency, and to hand over to relevant authorities for criminal prosecution of human rights violators. It should have powers to protect persons providing evidence.

    20. Use a transparent and consultative process in selecting a diverse group of commissioners known for their experience and integrity. Terms of appointment, tenure and removal should be clearly specified, with guarantees of independence. Commissioners and their staff should receive adequate salaries in order to attract and retain competent and qualified people.

    21. Provide, as a priority, the necessary financial and material resources to allow a human rights commission to effectively undertake its responsibilities. The government has a responsibility to provide a substantial part of a human rights commission's budget comparable to what another government institution might receive.

    22. Require regular and public reporting of the commission's activities and findings, without editorial oversight by the government. The commission's findings should be fully available to the public in an easily accessible form.

    23. Direct human rights commissions to establish effective cooperation with civil society groups, including the independent media and nongovernmental human rights groups.

    24. Take expeditious action to follow the conclusions and recommendations made by the human rights commission. Persons whom the commission finds responsible for committing or ordering, encouraging or permitting human rights violations should automatically be brought to justice.

    To Human Rights Commissioners

    25. Play an active and leading role in the promotion and protection of human rights in the country. Do not capitulate to the inevitable pressure from other government agencies to downplay or ignore human rights abuses. Actively seek out regional and international support to ensure that the commission can function as autonomously as possible.

    26. Ensure that the human rights commission is known by and accessible to all sectors of society, particularly vulnerable groups. Create accessible procedures through which the commission can be contacted. Select office premises that are centrally located and serviced by public transportation, and if possible, not shared with other government agencies. Open regional offices in all major zones of the country.

    27. Actively build a strong partnership with local nongovernmental organizations, including human rights groups and the independent media in the country. Serve as an interlocutor between the government and nongovernmental sectors on human rights issues.

    28. Look for ways to overcome resource constraints, such as collaboration on projects with local NGOs or other government agencies.

    29. Continue to build a strong regional network of human rights commissions in order to strengthen existing commissions, to prod weak or compliant commissions to take more action, and to provide protection to commissioners from reprisals from the government for their work.

    To the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights

    30. Adopt a more nuanced and advocacy-oriented approach, rather than a blanket call for all African governments to create national human rights institutions under any circumstances. Assist existing national human rights institutions in Africa to become more autonomous and credible by actively calling on African governments with weak or compliant human rights commissions to refrain from political interference and to provide adequate resources.

    31. Play more of a protective role to support human rights commissioners that face government pressure or reprisal for their work.

    32. In granting observer status to national human rights institutions, create regulations to ensure that African governments do not misuse this recent development to obscure government abuses or to undermine the contribution by local NGO observers.

    To the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights

    33. Adopt a more nuanced and advocacy-oriented approach in advising governments on the creation of human rights commissions. Do not adopt a blanket approach that advocates for the creation of such commissions by all governments under any circumstances. Examine more critically the political context within which a commission is being formed, and be prepared, if necessary, to recommend against the creation of a human rights commission. The opinions of the nongovernmental human rights community in the country should be solicited and better integrated into the process of providing assistance to human rights commissions.

    34. Play a stronger follow-up role with existing human rights commissions to ensure that they become autonomous and credible. Protest, publicly if necessary, government actions that seek to limit the autonomy of their human rights commission through political or financial pressure. Actively call on governments with weak or compliant human rights commissions to comply with the Paris Principles, to refrain from interference, and to provide adequate resources.

    35. Provide greater support to human rights commissions that exhibit a record of credible and legitimate work.

    36. Do not lend legitimacy to weak or compliant human rights commissions that are apologists for government abuses. Be more willing to criticize, publicly if necessary, action or inaction by compliant human rights commissions that undermines the promotion or protection of human rights.

    37. International support for human rights commissions should be given as part of an integrated system of support for judicial independence and independent human rights groups. 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

    38. Continue to provide support for greater regional interaction between human rights commissions that can strengthen existing commissions, including the biannual regional meeting. Provide greater funding and support for a stronger presence of local human rights groups at regional or other meetings on human rights commissions.

    39. Create a more coordinated and systematic inter-office system to ensure that the special advisor on national human rights institutions and country desk officers work more closely together when giving technical advice.

    40. Work more closely with other U.N. agencies that are interacting with human rights commissions-such UNDP or U.N. peace-keeping, political, or human rights field operations-to ensure that U.N. financial and other support for human rights commissions is coordinated, consistent, and constructive.

    To International Donors and the U.N. Development Program

    41. Condition financial support to human rights commissions on the basis of their records of activity in promoting and protecting human rights. Greater funding, training, and logistical support should be provided to those human rights commissions that exhibit a solid record of independence and activity. Evaluation and monitoring of the activities of human rights commissions should be conducted by donors on an ongoing basis.

    42. Withhold financial support to compliant human rights commissions that are silent or apologists for government abuses.

    43. Be willing to criticize, publicly if necessary, steps taken by governments to fetter the autonomy of their human rights commission.

    44. Accompany financial donations to human rights commissions with advocacy efforts to call on government to provide greater funding to their commissions. Donor contributions should not allow governments to evade their responsibilities to adequately fund their national human rights commissions.

    45. Funding and other support to national human rights commissions should be accompanied by a similar effort to strengthen judicial independence as well as the local nongovernmental human rights community in the country. A human rights commission is often made more active and effective through its interaction with other independent government agencies and civil society groups.

    46. Provide greater support for human rights trainings for commissioners within the region, rather than to Europe or the U.S. The experiences of strong and active human rights commissions within Africa, such as those in Ghana, Uganda, or South Africa, are more relevant and useful for other African human rights commissioners and their staff. Training opportunities should also be offered to the secretariat staff working in human rights commissions, who are often overlooked.

    47. Provide greater funding and support for a stronger presence of local human rights NGOs at regional or other meetings on human rights commissions in Africa.

Human Rights Watch World Report 2001

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