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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

    The Commission Nationale des Droits de l'Homme [National Human Rights Commisson] was established by law though the National Assembly in March 1999, and the seven commissioners were elected in May 1999.

    A national human rights commission was foreseen in the protocol on establishing a state of law in Rwanda, as far back as August 1992 by the Rwandan government and the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which was then making war against it. This protocol and others formed the final peace agreement known as the Arusha Accords, signed a year later in August 1993. Following its defeat of the Rwandan government in July 1994, the Rwandan Patriotic Front organized a new government which took the Arusha Accords and the existing Rwandan constitution as the new fundamental law of the country. Despite the early commitment to a national human rights commission, the government actually obtained the necessary parliamentary statute establishing the body only five years later when the National Assembly passed law no. 04/99 on March 12, 1999.

    The mandate of the Commission is stated briefly and in general terms in Article 3 of law no. 04/99: "To investigate and follow-up on human rights violations committed by anyone on the Rwandan territory, especially State organs and individuals under the cover of State organs as well as any national organizations working in Rwanda." Article 4 provides some elaboration, indicating in particular that the functions of the Commission are: "To sensitize and train the Rwandan population in matters of Human Rights" and to inform "relevant authorities to eventually initiate judicial proceedings in case of Human Rights violations by anyone." It is unclear if the Commission is only to inform authorities who will then begin judicial proceedings or if the Commission itself may initiate such proceedings. When questioned about this matter by Human Rights Watch, the President of the Commission indicated that this was a question yet to be resolved.184

    Article 5 charges the Commission to report on "all detected cases of violations of Human Rights to the Office of the President of the Republic, the Government, the National Assembly and the Supreme Court," and Article 6 further specifies that the Commission must submit a yearly report on its activities to the President, with copies to the government, the National Assembly and the Supreme Court. It is not mandated that Commission reports be made public. According to Article 2, the Commission is independent but it is not necessarily permanent. The article specifies only that it is established for "an unspecified period."

    At an October 1999 conference incorporating representatives from similar commissions in other countries as well as representatives of local and international human rights organizations, one committee recommended that law 04/99 be revised to grant the Rwandan Commission such powers as to summon a witness and compel testimony, to interrogate witnesses, and to have access to restricted locations in the course of an investigations. The committee recommended further elaboration of the functions of the Commission to include explicit mention of receiving and investigating complaints of individuals, or groups, about threats of human rights violations; visiting prisons, communal jails, and other places of detention; and making reports to the public. Participants in the conference noted variations in the three versions of the law, Kinyarwanda, French and English, and recommended that the two translations be made to conform to the Kinyarwanda original. As of December 1999, such changes had not been made.

    In a work plan presented in October 1999, the Commission specified that in addition to investigating current abuses, it would devote the year 2000 to investigating abuses from 1990 to 1999, and the year 2001 to inquiring into abuses prior to 1990. Given that these time periods included a number of massacres of citizens by state and non-state actors as well as the 1994 genocide, investigating these crimes would appear to demand considerable resources. When asked by Human Rights Watch how staff time would be allocated between these investigations into the past and those of the present, the president replied that this question had not been decided.185

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