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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

    Senegal has a long tradition of active cooperation with the international community, and attentiveness to international concerns about human rights. As it again demonstrated in being the first state to ratify the Statute of the International Criminal Court, Senegal frequently takes a leading role. It initially established a human rights committee in 1970, whose purpose was promotional, but directly linked to Senegal's international commitments. It was charged with organizing the celebration of U.N. designated events, particularly Human Rights Day on December 10. It also had task of pursuing popular education in human rights.

    The original human rights committee was established by decree and subject to executive control. Over the next twenty-seven years, the activities of the committee varied depending on the political circumstances and the energy of the director. During some periods, the committee effectively ceased to function. In 1993, President Adbou Diouf named Youssoupha Ndiaye, president of the Conseil Constitutionnel to head the committee, which he did at the end of 1994. Mr. Ndiaye was also elected to the regional African Commission for Human and Peoples' Rights at the outset in 1987. As head of the human rights committee, Ndiaye actively sought to revive the committee and implicate it directly in government human rights policy. From documents later published by the committee, it is not clear that he had very much success. He did, however, initiate a review of the committee in light of international developments. Together with Malick Sow, president of the departmental tribunal of Dakar, he then proposed that the committee be reorganized and established by law consistent with the 1992 U.N. Paris Principles.

    Pressure for a new law to strengthen and revive the committee also came from other quarters. Senegal's traditionally high reputation and standing in the field of human rights had been increasingly challenged, particularly as other African states undertook democratic reforms in the early 1990s, erasing some of the major differences that previously set Senegal apart. Senegal's conduct in the Casamance region was drawing continuous criticism. Following an individual complaint under the optional protocol, the U.N. Human Rights Committee found Senegal to have violated its international legal obligations and called on it to pay compensation. Then, in early 1996, the German government removed Senegal from the list of "sure" countries in respect of human rights. Although technically this decision only affected asylum applicants in Germany, it was a powerful symbolic repudiation from one of Senegal's primary international supporters.188 Many Senegalese activists cited the German decision as having a decisive impact in convincing the government that further measures had to be taken to restore Senegal's international reputation. The expansion and reform of the human rights committee was one of those measures. The new law was adopted by the parliament on February 26, 1997 and promulgated March 10, 1997.

    The 1997 law defines the Comité Senegalais des Droits de l'Homme [the Senegalese Human Rights Committee] (CSDH) as an "independent institution of consultation, observation, evaluation, dialogue, concertation189 and proposals" in matters of human rights. From a normative legal perspective, the fact of consecrating the CSDH in law-rather than decree or regulation-raised its stature. The other important improvements in the law make the CSDH an "independent institution," render its membership broad and pluralistic, and grant it wide jurisdiction and great latitude in taking up cases and issues. In general, the law grants wide discretion to the CSDH in its choice of means and subject matter, though at the same time, it is weak with regard to actual powers.

    The mandate of the CSDH includes promotion and protection of human rights, as well as reporting on human rights conditions in the country. With respect to promotion, it is tasked with educating the public and the administration in human rights by use of the media, education, conferences "or other means." (Article 2) It should "create, collect and distribute" documentation about human rights.

    With respect to protection, broadly viewed, the CSDH can act on individual cases as well as broader issues. The CSDH must take action when it becomes aware of human rights violations, independently or is informed of them by the authorities;190 it may "draw the attention" of public authorities to violations of human rights and propose solutions. The CSDH may issue opinions or recommendations on "all matters" ("toutes questions") relevant to human rights, including "laws, regulations or administrative practices".

    The CSDH has an important, but less defined role, as a forum for mediating the relations between civil society and government in human rights. In the law, this is expressed in several way-in the preface, by calling the CSDH a organ of "dialogue," "consultation," and "concertation," and in the mandate by requiring it to "assure the concertation between social forces" in civil society and state institutions. Although a little obscure on paper, this is clearly one of the most important purposes for the authorities and NGOs. The value of the CSDH as a pluralist forum for raising and addressing human rights issues has been reinforced in the speeches of President Diouf as well as the President of the CSDH. In his response to the first annual report, President Diouf referred to the CSDH as a place where "human rights activists could express themselves freely.191 Similarly, Ndiaye referred to the CSDH as a "forum within which nongovernmental organizations can . . . draw the attention of the authorities to possible violations of human rights."192
    One of the CSDH's narrowest, but most defined roles, is to review state submissions to U.N. and regional human rights bodies, to cooperate with those agencies and to "insure respect by Senegal of its obligations under international and regional law." (Article 3) In fact, this involves the only clear power of the CSDH vis-à-vis other state authorities. Not only is it called upon to review human rights submissions prepared by all government agencies, but the decree establishing an inter-ministerial human rights committee, which is responsible, inter alia, for coordinating the preparation of state submissions, requires consultation with the CSDH.
    The law guarantees a high degree of transparency and grants broad discretion to the CSDH in choosing its priorities and the cases on which it will focus. All its recommendations and opinions are required to be made public. Its annual report, which has included all the internal communications and notes of meetings, is also published. The weakest aspect of the CSDH is the absence of investigative powers or formal role in the review of laws. There is no automatic procedure by which the CSDH is consulted during the process of drafting laws that implicate human rights. In the past years, major legislation reforming criminal procedure and criminalizing female genital mutilation were adopted without input from the CSDH.193 The problem is exacerbated by the absence, until recently, of a functioning secretariat with the means to actively follow events in the ministries and the National Assembly. But the absence of express powers also affects the CSDH's role in pursuing its mandate in respect of individual violations. The law calls on it to take action in the case of violations, but there is no clear indication of action it can take, other than to highlight the abuse through private or public communication. There are no express powers of investigation, including for example, the right to obtain documents or question officials. The assumption is that the CSDH will serve as a reconciliatory forum for settling problems amicably.

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