The End of Southern Africa’s Regional Human Rights Court?

Leaders of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) took a momentous decision in Maputo over the weekend—to shut the doors of the SADC Tribunal, preventing the region’s citizens from seeking justice for human rights abuses.

The shocking decision, which was taken at the annual summit of SADC Heads of State and Government in Maputo, not only left the tribunal in limbo but also rendered it completely toothless by denying individual access to the court.

“The decision to deny the region's inhabitants any access to the tribunal is astounding and entirely without any lawful basis,” said Nicole Fritz, Director of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC). “Civil society groups were worried that SADC leaders would conspire to weaken the tribunal but this is far worse than we had feared. SADC has destroyed it.”

The summit's final communiqué explains that SADC leaders have “resolved that a new Protocol on the Tribunal should be negotiated and its mandate confined to interpretation of the SADC Treaty and Protocols relating to disputes between Member States.”

The original tribunal protocol made it clear that individuals also had access to the court. In fact, all previous cases heard by the tribunal had been brought by individuals.

“The decision flies in the face of the recommendations of both the SADC-instituted review of the tribunal and SADC's own Ministers of Justice and Attorneys General,” said Fritz. “It is also completely at odds with the best practice of other regional institutions and undermines the protection of human rights and hopes for future economic growth and development.”

The SADC Tribunal has been defunct for the past two years after SADC leaders demanded a review of its powers and functions, following a series of cases in which it had ruled against the Zimbabwean government.

Despite a campaign spearheaded by legal bodies, civil society organizations, and individuals such as Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, SADC’s leaders decided not to the revive the tribunal immediately and to ensure that in future it will be little more than a shell.

“Our leaders have shown their contempt for all of us in southern Africa and for the rule of law,” said Fritz. “Not only did they deny the region’s citizens access to the tribunal but member states almost never bring legal cases against each other so the court will be a complete waste of taxpayers’ money.”

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