Professor Bem Angwe is the executive secretary, National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). In this exclusive chat with EMMA OKEREH, the professor of law expresses his worries on the low level of awareness by many Nigerians on their human rights and efforts by the commission to reverse the trend. He spoke on other issues bordering on the commission. Excerpts:
What does the National Human Rights Commission stand for?
The National Human Rights Commission was established as a result of the desire by the entire human community to have peace and stability in the world. Peace and stability in the world can only start with the respect of all mankind.
If I respect your rights, I will not harm you. If you respect my rights, you will not harm me. If government respects the rights of people, government will give people access to food, so that they can live in peace and harmony.
So the international community decided in 1993, when the United Nations adopted a resolution, which today is referred to as ‘The Paris Principles’.
This resolution mandates all nations of the world to establish national institutions that demonstrate the commitment of states or nations of the world to uphold the nobility of mankind; to give back the human being the nobility that was given to man at creation to live with one another in peace and harmony.
So this national institution, which is what we have in Nigeria today as the National Human Rights Commission is to ensure the promotion, protection and enforcement of rights of all human beings within the respective state.
So, Nigeria in response to her commitments, as a member of the United Nations decided to establish the National Human Rights Commission as a demonstration of her desire to have a government institution that would ensure that rights are protected and that rights are enforced in this country.
So, today the National Human Rights Commission has this mandate of ensuring that all Nigerians have their rights, not only respected, not only recognised, but also protected and enforced.
What is the commission doing in making government responsive to fighting abject poverty in the country, which is an aspect of fundamental human rights?
The commission realises that truly in Nigeria today, poverty has become a weapon of mass destruction. In other countries of the world, you talk about nuclear weapons as weapons of mass destruction, but in Nigeria today poverty has become a weapon of mass destruction, because from this poverty you have diseases.
People cannot access drugs because they don’t have money. Other people cannot access food that would give them nourishments and make them look healthy. Other people cannot access shelter, because they don’t have the money.
Other people cannot access good conditions of living because they don’t have the money. When all these things are not there, definitely the people are either bound to die or some are going to be involved in certain activities that could result in a violation of rights.
When people don’t have money, or are not in a position to access drugs or medicine, which is a human right, and when you don’t have access to medicine, because you don’t have, not that the drugs are not there, then you die in the cause of any disease that you cannot treat because you don’t have money to buy drugs, that is a violation of human rights.
So, the commission realised that much of the violations of human rights taking place in Nigeria are a direct consequence of level of poverty in the country. So what this commission did was to call for a national dialogue. During the national dialogue, we invited government; we invited all the key holders.
In fact, the national dialogue was chaired by the governor of Benue State, the state often regarded as the ‘food basket of the nation’. The minister of agriculture was there as one of the guests that made presentations.
This dialogue agreed that there is poverty, and that poverty is one of the factors that are responsible for the series of human rights violations in Nigeria. Also, we discovered that many Nigerians do not have access to food. We also discovered that for quite a long while, the country has not given much attention to food as a fundamental human right.
The central theme at that dialogue was ‘Access to Food as a Fundamental Human Right’.
So the commission used that opportunity to sensitize all Nigerians on the need to begin to take these rights very seriously, because the rights has become the major foundation upon which other rights will be recognised and respected.
So, we discussed and the major conclusion was for the government to ensure food security in the country. Ensuring food security does not mean that government must provide food freely to all Nigerians. But government should put in place all such measures and must take such steps that would ensure food security in the country.
This would require putting in place adequate and appropriate planning and mechanisms that would ensure that Nigerians have access to food. So, the commission after that dialogue has been putting in place steps that the commission can now champion the attainment of these rights; the right to food.
The commission is still dialoguing with all the various stakeholders and also making recommendations to government on the appropriate steps that government needs to take to ensure that there is an eradication of poverty in the country.
It appears that the commission’s activities are always in conflict with that of the security agencies. Does it mean that the commission was established in conflict with the law?
No, there is no conflict, because the commission has mandates, which include, promoting the rights of Nigerians. In that promotion activity, the commission needs to also educate the security agencies on the need to respect the rights of Nigerians, and also on the need for Nigerians to also respect the rights of the security agencies too, because they are also human rights.
If we come to say, let the security agencies not kill people arbitrarily, or through extra-judicial means. In the same vein, we must say, just as we have been saying, let no other person attack or kill any of the security agencies, because they are also human being, and their right must be protected.
For us at the commission here, our mandate is to protect the rights of everybody. We have a mandate to protect the right of even the president. We have the mandate to protect the rich. In the same vein, we have the right to protect the poor. So the commission has the mandate to respect and protect everybody, both the rich and the poor, the educated and the uneducated, those in authority and the masses.
So, most of the time it does appear that the commission is at a collision cause with the security agencies because most times they are seen to be the people who have to deal with persons who are in conflict with the law. And sometime in the process of dealing with persons who are conflict with the law, there are bound to be some infractions on the rights of the people.
One fundamental thing is that our constitution provides that every accused person is presumed to be innocent until the contrary is proved. This means that where a person is said to be in conflict with the law, there is a responsibility on the part of the security officer, who is dealing with that person, to be fair and to presume that the person is innocent. He must ensure that the person is not forced to give evidence that will incriminate him.
The officer is also cautioned not to criminalise the person, but to look for independent evidence that would prove that the person is actually guilty. The power to pronounce any body guilty is preserved constitutionally by the court, the judiciary that has the function of interpreting the laws that are made.
So, most of the times when the commission does insists that the security agencies enforce these constitutional provisions, that guarantees the innocence of an accused person, until the person is declared guilty by the court, it may appear that there is a kind of collision cause between the commission and the security agencies.
But what I must tell you is that both the security agencies, particularly the Nigeria Police and the National Human Rights Commission are doing one and the same thing.
Sometimes it looks as if the NHRC supports or stands for some known criminals in the society, especially when they insist that such persons should not be detained by the police beyond 24 hours. What is your reaction to this?
There are two things here. First and foremost, who said the man is a criminal. Is it the police officer that has arrested the man, who is saying that the man is a criminal? Or some members of the society that are saying, ‘that man is a dangerous person’.
What is the evidence that shows the person is a dangerous person. You can only allege this man appears to be a dangerous person.
It is only the court that can say that the man is a dangerous person. That means that the person is a criminal. To pronounce a person a criminal is a reserved mandate of the judiciary. That is why we often refer to what we call the imaginary scale of justice.
We have what is called the substantive law and the procedural law. In the substantive law, we have offences that are defined. So if somebody is noted for behaving in a particular way that meets with the definition of that particular offence. You will say oh, this person is alleged to have committed an offence.
But you have to look at the procedural law, because the procedural law says if somebody is alleged to have committed an offence, what do you do? Do you just because he is a notorious criminal and then give the security agencies the power to take a decision.
The security agencies don’t have the power to determine whether your behaviour is contrary to what the society accepts or not.
They don’t have the power to punish, because they are not the one that holds that imaginary saw, where you have that imaginary scale of justice.
The law is that once the person who is a notorious criminal is apprehended, don’t keep him with you. Take him to court.
One other fundamental thing you need to know is that the commission is in the process at the moment of ensuring that the basic fundamental human rights provisions are translated in the first phase in four major Nigerian languages of Hausa, Yoruba, Ibo and Fulani, so that people can read and understand their rights.
Apart from that, we are also taking steps to also address issue where people who cannot read or write also get to know their rights. We are also going to start having town hall meetings. We are going to visit various communities to address them.
That is even the reason why the commission has decided that today we are going to expand our offices and areas of operations from just having zonal offices to the states.
When we have funds we are also going to move to the local governments, whereby we can reach the people at the grassroots levels. They can even come to the commission to become aware.
It is for that reason that we have a new full unit here established, called human rights education. Any moment from now the commission is going to hit the Nigerian streets and roads so that Nigerians will be made to understand their rights. We have also put in place media programmes, radio, and television to educate the people.
I tell you that Nigerians knowing their rights is the most important thing for the commission now, because only when Nigerians get to know their rights that all other things can follow. You need to even know your rights before you seek for protection and enforcement.
How many cases of human rights violations have you received in the last two years?
Well, I can tell you that on a daily basis all over the country, we receive not less than 200 complaints of allegations of human rights violations. And in the last two years, we have received not less than about 6,000 complaints of human rights violations all over the country.
Do you take the complaints up?
Of course we take up such complaints. There is no violation that is reported that we don’t take up. Most of them are family issues that we resolve. And sometimes, most of these cases are resolved through mediations. We reconcile families.