JOHANNESBURG – With the rule of law under threat in much of the region, Southern African Development Community (SADC) Ministers are meeting this week to decide the fate of the SADC Tribunal – amid growing fears that they will conspire to block individual access to the court, further imperilling human rights and long-term economic growth.
“SADC ministers face a simple choice – to strengthen the Tribunal, the rule of law and prospects for progress in our region or render it toothless and undermine SADC’s own goals of sustainable economic growth and human rights for all,” said Nicole Fritz, Director of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC).
The Council of Ministers meeting in Namibia from April 11–15 is the culmination of a process that began in August last year, when SADC heads of state and government decided to review the role, functions and terms of reference of the Tribunal.
The review was occasioned by Zimbabwe’s attack on the Tribunal, which had ruled against President Mugabe’s government in a series of cases dealing with land disputes.
“SADC should have sanctioned or suspended Zimbabwe after its refusal to abide by the Tribunal’s rulings but instead SADC leaders effectively suspended the Tribunal,” said Fritz. “Ministers now have the chance to undo the damage and reaffirm their support for the rule of law – and ensure that southern Africans still have the right to seek legal redress in their regional court.”
SALC has signed a petition along with 18 other organisations – including the SADC Lawyers Association, the East Africa Law Society and the Pan-African Lawyers Union – expressing their concern about the future of the Tribunal and urging ministers to take measures to strengthen the court – rather than sabotage it.
The petition calls on ministers to retain the Tribunal’s jurisdiction to receive SADC citizens’ petitions on issues of human rights and trade, affirm its institutional autonomy and judicial independence, and immediately ensure there are enough judges for a quorum so that the Tribunal can continue its crucial work and guarantee the rights of all SADC citizens to access justice.
Should SADC act to deprive individuals of the right to access the tribunal, it will remove one of the last remaining avenues southern Africans have of securing recognition of their government’s unlawful actions. But it will also mean that investors in any SADC state, who might be targets of arbitrary expropriation and unable to secure relief before that country’s courts, will have no right to approach the Tribunal for determination of their entitlements and protection of their property – seriously undermining investor confidence.
If SADC pursues this path, it will also set itself at odds with the other regional economic communities in Africa. Both the Economic Community of West African States and the East Africa Community secure the rights of individual access to their respective courts, recognising that such access is critical to protecting human rights and to encouraging economic growth.
For more information – including a copy of the petition – please contact:
Nicole Fritz, Director Southern Africa Litigation Centre; off +27 11 587 5065; Cell +27 82 600 1028
Richard Lee, Communications Manager, Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa; Off +27 11 587 5031; Cell +27 83 231 4192; Richardl@osisa.org
Signatories to the Petition:
African Women Millennium Initiative, Amnesty International, Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, Centre for Citizens Participation in the AU, Coalition for an Effective African Court, Consortium of Refugees and Migrants in South Africa, East Africa Law Society, Human Rights Institute South Africa, International Commission of Jurists, Lawyers for Human Rights South Africa, Open Society Justice Initiative, Pan-African Lawyers Union, Southern Africa Litigation Centre, SADC Lawyers Association, SADC Council of NGOs, Tanganyika Law Society, Zimbabwe Law Society, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, Zimbabwe Exiles Forum.
Download a legal opinion prepared by SALC and other NGOs on the suspension of the SADC Tribunal.