Africa’s Court of Human Rights on the brink of collapse

Civil society rejoiced when the Tanzania-based African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights was established in 1998. But the dream for justice within the continent risks falling apart as member states neglect the court.

Within six months, three African nations – Tanzania, Benin, Ivory Coast – have revoked the right of individuals and NGOs to sue them before the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights. This leaves just six member countries where the court has such jurisdiction.

There were high hopes when 30 countries launched the Court back in 1998. Six years later, the court began its work and its judgments are binding on member states. But today, the court is no longer a priority for many African governments, or even the African Union (AU).

«Individuals and NGOs are currently the only ones bringing cases to the African humans rights court,» former deputy chairman of the ACHPR, Fatsah Ouguergouz, told DW. «The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights probably no longer has the interest in going to court, nor are the individual states prepared to do so,» he said. In other words, the court will soon simply run out of cases.

But the Court doesn’t just face difficulties before a new trial even begins. Some states block any attempts to enforce court decisions.

Take Benin, for example — the opposition politician Sebastien Ajavon appealed to the court after being sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2018. Ajavon argued that he had been excluded from taking part in the local elections as a result.

Human rights organization Amnesty International warns that many governments not only boycott the ACHPR but also weaken their own country’s local courts.

«The alternative is to tell people to turn to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to appeal to the court indirectly,» Fidele Kikan, Amnesty International’s Country Director in Benin, told DW.

According to Zimbabwean lawyer Sternford Moyo, the problem does not lie with the ACHPR itself.

«The problem is rather the lack of will among African heads of state to enforce prosecution and end impunity,» Moyo, who previously chaired two judges’ associations in the region — the Law Society of Zimbabwe and the SADC Law Association — told DW.

The fact that courts fall out of favor with African governments as soon as they take up cases that the same governments do not like is not an isolated incident. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has had to struggle with this issue time and again.

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