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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






    Although human rights experience was lacking at the time of appointment, the commissioners have since shown that they can fulfill a significant part of their mandate. Shortly after appointment, the commissioners spent a lot of their time traveling to Europe, the U.S. and South Africa for meetings, which further fueled the suspicion that the commission was not committed to addressing problems within the country. On one occasion in 1997 the Swedish Embassy had tried to encourage the commissioners to postpone a scheduled trip to Sweden because of a human rights crisis in the country but the commissioners still regarded their trip as a priority and went ahead with the trip. Additionally, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights provided technical and comparative advice to the Human Rights Commission at the outset.

    The commission has established a management committee responsible for overseeing all its work chaired by Judge Chibesakunda. The commission also created five Administrative Departments:

215. Administration and Finance
216. Legal
217. Research Planning and Programs
218. Training and Human Resources Development
219. Education Information and Communications

In addition the following eight operational committees have been created:

    1) Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration Committee
    2) Committee against Torture
    220. Children Rights Committee
    221. Gender Equality Committee
    222. Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Committee
    223. Civil and Political Rights Committee
    7) Communal and Minority Rights Committee
    224. Information, Education and Communications Committee108

    There are provincial committees in Zambia's nine provinces. Each province is allocated a commissioner to coordinate activities and to act as a link between the province and the Human Rights Commission. However, it is unclear what, if anything, the committees are doing. Members of the committees convincingly argue that as long as there is no financing for various identified activities, it is extremely difficult for the provincial committees to undertake any substantive projects.

    In the execution of its mandate, the commission has, in the few years of its existence, handled many complaints from members of the public. As of August 1999, it had dealt with 960 complaints since its inception.109 The complaints have included all kinds from those relating to employment, retirement benefits, matrimonial disputes, poor conditions of service, inhuman prison conditions and human rights violations by police. For example, the commission intervened in the death in police custody of a robbery suspect who had been severely beaten and suffered burns between his legs before dying of multiple injuries. The investigation by the commission resulted in the arrest of seven police officers in connection with the killing in July 1998. The commission is most visible in its prison work. Results of the visits to prisons have been made available to the media and have circulated widely resulting in greater awareness and publicity of the appalling prison conditions.

    In 1997, the commission was active and showed commendable initiative in pursuing abuses relating to persons detained without trial under emergency regulations after the 1997 failed coup. Constitutional guarantees of many basic human rights were suspended in the months that followed the coup attempt and detainees were tortured or beaten by police while in detention. A number of detainees collapsed in court due to illness brought about or exacerbated by poor remand prison conditions. Lawyers defending detainees were harassed. For over ten days the Human Rights Commission was blocked from gaining access to detainees that were being interrogated, in contravention to its mandate which states that it can "visit prisons and places of detention or related facilities with a view to assessing and inspecting conditions of the persons held in such places and make recommendations to redress existing problems."110 The Human Rights Commission eventually obtained access to the coup detainees, exposed the torture of seven of them, and sought better medical care for them. It also intervened in the eviction of families of the suspected coup plotters.

    The Human Rights Commission submitted a report to the government on March 30, 1998, naming several individuals who detainees say were torturers, including police chief Teddy Nondo. The report's key recommendation was: "Immediate retirement in the public interest of officers involved in torture of detained or remanded persons" and that the authorities "work out a retirement package for such officers." The commission also found that some of the police responsible for the torture had been previously named by the Munyama Commission. The government ignored the Human Rights Commission's recommendation, and in fact, Teddy Nondo was subsequently confirmed as Drug Enforcement Deputy Commissioner in June 1998. The government also joked about the commission's recommendations in a donors meeting, saying on the one hand the commission had recommended the immediate retirement of the officers it named but then wanted them rewarded with retirement packages rather than prosecution. The government did announce on August 11, 1998 the creation of independent commission of inquiry to probe into allegations of torture.

    After the commission publicly condemned the government's use of torture, the government suddenly withdrew its offer of a government premise, Ndeke House, as the commission's offices. It is widely believed that this was a warning to the commission to be more compliant. The renovations to office space that were underway, paid for by the Norwegian Agency for International Development (NORAD), were abruptly stopped and the offices summarily reallocated to the Electoral Commission. Although the commission obtained permanent premises in June 1998, it complained that the government had cut most of its funding, and that the lack of funding was impeding its work including its probe into alleged police gunfire during an opposition rally in August 1997, injuring opposition figures. In 1999 the commission continued to investigate reports of human rights abuses, mediated in a local dispute over land in Western province and in a labor dispute in Lusaka. As of August 1999, it had dealt with 960 complaints since its inception

Human Rights Watch World Report 2001

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