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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

    Zambia's transition from a one-party state to plural politics in 1991 came with the expectation of a new political dispensation based on the rule of law and respect for human rights. Zambia was heralded as a model for democracy after the peaceful transfer of power in November 1991, when the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) and its leader Frederick Chiluba gained a landslide victory over President Kenneth Kaunda and his United National Independence Party (UNIP). The MMD government, which inherited weak state institutions and a history of human rights abuse, came in on a platform that promised to uphold human rights.

    The permanent Human Rights Commission grew out of a commission of inquiry formed by President Chiluba in May 1993 to investigate human rights violations by past governments. The Munyama Commission, headed by prominent lawyer Bruce Munyama,102 held public hearings throughout the country and, among other things, exposed the use of torture in secret detention centers throughout the country. Among the conclusions of the Munyama Commission was a recommendation that a permanent human rights commission be established.103

    Following on the Munyama Commission's suggestion, in1996 the government made amendments to the constitution to provide for the establishment of a permanent human rights commission under Article 25. The Human Rights Commission Act of 1997 was passed by the Zambian parliament on March 13, 1997 and signed into law by President Chiluba the following day. The Human Rights Commission Act was billed as a central pillar of the MMD's efforts of legal reform. President Chiluba appointed then High Court Judge Lombe Chibesakunda to chair the Human Rights Commission, along with five other commissioners.

    Although the appointments were ratified by parliament, there was an uproar over the haste and the lack of transparency that characterized the appointment and parliamentary approval process. It remains a matter of debate in Zambia whether the creation of the Permanent Human Rights Commission was a consistent step in line with the stated MMD manifesto, or a donor-driven public relations ploy to offset international criticism over the MMD's controversial record during the 1996 general elections.104
    The commissioners were sworn in on April 4, 1997, exactly three weeks before a pre-consultative group meeting of Zambia's donors was due to convene in London. The donor meeting was critically examining, among others things, Zambia's progress on political reforms following the election. International ambivalence over rights conditions in the run-up to the election had resulted in a decision by the major donors to maintain an aid freeze. The speed with which the appointments process of the commissioners was finalized fueled suspicions that the establishment of the Human Rights Commission was intended to placate donor concerns about the human rights situation in the country in the hopes of restoring aid flows.

    At the 1997 pre-consultative group meeting, the government prominently highlighted the newly created Human Rights Commission. The Finance and Economic Development Minister, in his speech at the meeting, pointed to the commission as a measure of the government's commitment to human rights. In the brief submitted by the government to donors, the section on the Human Rights Commission portrayed the commission as part of the government's "institutional framework" and proof of the "substantial and irreversible progress" it had made.105 Documents on the Human Rights Commission were distributed widely to international donors. However, within Zambia, these documents were not accessible to local human rights activists. Officials of the government printing office in Lusaka told Human Rights Watch that the documents concerning the commission were available "only to diplomats," after initially denying they had ever been printed.106

    The mandate of the commission is fairly broad. According to Section 9(a)-(f) of the Human Rights Commissions Act (1996), the commission's functions are to:

    210. investigate human rights violations;
    211. investigate any maladministration of justice; and
    212. propose effective measures to prevent human rights abuse.

Its investigatory powers include the power to investigate any rights abuses on its own initiative or on receipt of a complaint. According to sections 10(2) and (3), the commission is empowered to: "issue summons or orders requiring the attendance of any authority before the Commission." The commission also possesses somewhat weaker powers to "recommend" the following: "release of a person from detention; the payment of compensation to a victim of human rights abuse . . . [and] that an aggrieved person seek redress in a court of law."

    Its weakest link is in section 13(1), "Recommendations" which grants the power to:
    213. send written reports of its findings to the parties concerned; and

    214. dependent on the findings made, make such recommendations as it considers necessary to the appropriate authority.

In short, the act gives the commission absolutely no power to enforce its findings beyond, should it choose to use it, making public its findings. Instead, it can only make recommendations to the appropriate government agency, which can choose to uphold or ignore the commission's recommendations.

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