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Civil society cries foul over rights bill


Billy Ntaote

CIVIL society organisations have accused the National Assembly of not affording them an opportunity to contribute to the formulation of the Human Rights Commission Bill which was passed last Tuesday.

The bill, which provides for the administration and regulation of the activities of the commission, was initially tabled in the National Assembly on 2 November 2015.

Following its passing last week, it would now be submitted to the Senate for approval before it gets signed into law by King Letsie III.

Among the functions of the commission would be to monitor the state of human rights throughout Lesotho; monitor the human rights situation of detainees and investigate violations of human rights and, if necessary, be responsible for instituting proceedings against such violations in the courts of law.

According to the bill, the appointment of the commission’s members would be “gender sensitive” with a chairperson and deputy chairperson who would act in the absence of the chairperson and commissioners.

The commission’s members would be people with “extensive experience in human rights and related disciplines” and appointed by the King acting on the advice of the prime minister.

However, members of civil society organisations, who spoke to the Sunday Express, said they were not given an opportunity to air their views with regards to how the draft law should be structured following its tabling in the august house.

According to Transformation Resource Centre (TRC) Human Rights Advocacy Officer, Lepeli Moeketsi, the Human Rights Commission could not be independent if its members were appointed by the executive branch of government.

“The fact that the commission’s members would be appointed by the King acting on the advice of the prime minister is a point of great concern,” he said.

“We believe that such a procedure would compromise the independence of the commission and also politicise its members.

“It would then become difficult for the commission to deal with cases of human rights violations by the government or its agencies.”

Mr Moeketsi noted that, in its current form, the bill fell short of the Paris Principles relating to the status and functioning of national institutions protecting and promoting human rights.

According to the Paris Principles, which were defined during an international workshop in the French capital in 1991, the key elements of the composition of a national institution are its independence and pluralism.

“For the Human Rights Commission to function independently and free from political influence, it needs to have a multi-sectoral advisory panel to advise the prime minister on the people who should be appointed as its members,” said Mr Moeketsi.

“Such a multi-sectoral advisory committee would be effective if it is composed of civil society, academics, Members of Parliament, members of the judiciary and members of the Council of State among others.

“We also believe that the members of the commission should be increased to at least nine. Empirical evidence from other countries has shown that human rights experts and civil society should be included in such a commission for pluralism to be achieved.”

Mr Moeketsi warned that it would be a “grave error” on the part of government to exclude civil society from the process of identifying members of the human rights commission.

“We don’t understand the reason for the rush by the National Assembly to pass this bill without giving us the chance to give our input,” he said.

“We also noted, with great concern, that the Law and Public Safety portfolio committee claimed that we were extensively consulted by the Human Rights, Law and Constitutional Affairs ministry and that there was no need to repeat the exercise.”

Lesotho Council of Non-Governmental Organisations (LCN) Executive Secretary, Seabata Motsamai, echoed the same sentiments, saying civil society organisations wanted to appear before the parliamentary portfolio committee to air their views on the structure of the Human Rights Commission but were not afforded the chance to do so.

“Following the first reading, (on 2 November 2015), we informed the Law and Public Safety portfolio committee, through its clerk, of our intention to make submissions on the draft law. But we were told there was limited time,” said Mr Motsamai.

“Our argument is that the bill does not comply with the Paris Principles. It is very likely that the United Nations will give it a status B ranking and the United Nations Human Rights Council might not recognise the Human Rights Commission as an autonomous body.”

He said Parliament needed to learn from international best practice with regards to setting up commissions of that nature to ensure they are sustainable.

Contacted for comment, Portfolio Committee on Law and Public Safety chairperson, Lineo Molise-Mabusela, said all interested stakeholders should have submitted their views to the committee from 2 November 2015 when the bill was tabled in parliament.

“All stakeholders should have submitted their concerns and submissions on the bill within the month of November, but we didn’t receive anything,” said Ms Molise-Mabusela.

“It was only on 7 December that I received a call from a civil society group enquiring about how they could make a submission, yet we had completed our work by that time.

“However, there were extensive consultations made with almost all the non-governmental organisations that include TRC, LCN and many others. No one can say they were not consulted since the government made the effort to consult widely.”

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