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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 its credit, the commission members have attempted, amid inadequate resources and weak powers, to genuinely address some human rights issues. The commission has dealt with a substantial number of labor, marital, employment and tenant complaints. Its advocacy work on prison conditions has been productive in highlighting the appalling conditions. Following the October 1997 coup attempt, the Human Rights Commission showed commendable initiative, in the face of executive displeasure, by publicly condemning the government's use of torture and organizing medical assistance for the torture victims. As a result, the Human Rights Commission has garnered greater respect among some Zambians for its interventions. Helped by good press coverage of its statements, the Human Rights Commission has even come under fire from ruling party parliamentarians and the executive branch. It has also been hailed by the respected lawyer Bruce Munyama and some political opposition figures for its work. Human Rights Commission chair Justice Lombe Chibesakunda believes that the commission is increasingly being acknowledged by the public and that the commission is increasingly being called on to either assist or intervene by credible institutions and individuals.111

    However, at heart, the commission is still a weak body that is unable and/or unwilling to effect change on some of the more serious patterns of government abuse that occur in Zambia. Extra judicial killings and other abuse by police receive only intermittent attention from the commission as does the intimidation by government agents and ruling party cadres against the independent media and the nongovernmental human rights community. Serious questions remain about the ability of the commission to take to task the executive branch and its agencies and to remedy many known human rights violations.

    The limitations of the commission are largely due to weaknesses in its founding statute. There are mixed opinions as to whether this is due to legislative oversight or actual design on the part of the Chiluba government. The lack of enforcement powers is a major impediment that hamstrings the commission's ability to anything more than make recommendations with little or no meaningful impact. As previously mentioned, following the commission's recommendation that Police Chief Teddy Nondo be retired due to torture allegations by detainees, the government promoted him to deputy commissioner in the Drug Enforcement Commission. In 1997, the commission deemed unconstitutional and recommended the repeal of Regulation 12 of the Preservation of Public Security (1997),112 which prohibited restricted persons from communicating with the press or any group not authorized by the inspector general of police. This recommendation, like others, was ignored by the executive. The lack of security of tenure for commissioners, is another major problem.

    The success of any organization to a large extent depends on its resource base. The lack of adequate support from government (financial and otherwise) is another limitation. According to the commissioners, the Human Rights Commission since its inception has not been funded at a level that would allow it to undertake the expected tasks. As a result of the lack of a resource base, the commission is unable to attract or retain high caliber and skilled personnel.113 Although the Human Rights Commission is technically part of the government, the message that is being sent by the executive branch is that the Human Rights Commission is a marginal and weak agency that can be ignored by all other government agencies at no cost. Lastly, the Chiluba government appears to be limiting the effectiveness of Human Rights Commission through financial control as well as punitive measures such as the withholding of adequate office space.

    At the same time, some of the limitations appear to be coming from within the Human Rights Commission itself. There is evident caution by the commissioners to follow up on initial recommendations that are rejected by the government or to touch on more politically sensitive abuses by the government. The lack of enforcement powers has resulted on occasion in a more conciliatory approach being adopted than perhaps is necessary on the grounds that the government may respond more positively. This apologist approach may have been the rationale behind recommending retirement with benefits, rather than prosecution, for the police officers accused of torture in 1998. Simply put, as a collective, the commissioners are not willing to play a more proactive role to openly challenge the status quo and the benefits which go with it-little as they may be-to risk the open wrath of the government.
    An examination of the secretariat staff hired to support the work of the commission also reveals some weaknesses. The commission has relied largely on career civil servants for its support staff, rather than to recruit the most qualified Zambians it can find. While this ought not to be a problem, unfortunately, none of the staff selected from the civil service has shown or exhibited a commitment to human rights work. Neither the first acting director nor the current director, a lawyer appointed in 1998, had prior human rights experience. Although qualified and more experienced persons applied for the job of director, it remains unclear as to why the commission opted for a less experienced director without a human rights background. The commission has an elaborate secretariat structure on paper which has not been put into operation. The one exception is the investigations department that does have qualified personnel, but it appears wanting on leadership. In all fairness to the commission's secretariat staff, it is also not clear if the commissions would publish or act upon the work of a more dynamic staff.

    The Human Rights Commission's terms of reference remain vague and broad. The commission's defense is that resource constraints limit its ability to pursue more specific projects. While that is legitimate, it is also fair to state that the commission's priorities have remained undefined and in some cases questionable. For instance, the commissioners' interest in foreign travel and the refurbishment of their new offices have taken up a significant amount of time, in sharp contrast with its failure to mount a visible national program, apart from its prison work.

    At the time the Human Rights Commission was established in 1997, there were two divergent views in the nongovernmental human rights community: One was that it was a "toothless bulldog tamely wagging its tail to the executive and instituted purely to assuage donor opinion . . . [which] should be abolished."114 The other reserved judgment waiting for the record to confirm or dispel the reservations expressed. Almost three years after its establishment, there is no definitive conclusion. The commission is still struggling to assert itself as a credible and effective authority, in the face of difficulties put in their path by the Chiluba government.

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