Top SADC judge warns of consequences of rights court closure

July 14, 2011 at 7:01 am Leave a comment

By Alex Bell

The top judge in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) has spoken out about the shock closure of the region’s human rights court, warning that the move has serious consequences.

Mauritian Chief Justice Ariranga Pillay was the President of the SADC Tribunal before its closure by regional leaders earlier this year. He said on Monday that the decision sends out the worst possible message to investors and donors, about SADC and its commitment to upholding the rights of its citizens.

“It would seem that the highest authorities of SADC only pay lip service to
the principles of human rights, democracy and the rule of law,” said Pillay at a talk in South Africa.

Pillay last month, together with three other top judges, wrote a scathing letter to the SADC leadership blasting its decision to suspend the court. The Judges, drawn from across the region to head up the Tribunal, have all effectively been forced out of their positions by SADC’s decision, and are demanding compensation.

The four judges, whose five-year term expired in August 2010, had remained in office despite SADC deciding to review the role of the court for the first time last year. This was the result of SADC’s apparent unwillingness to hold Zimbabwe to account for refusing to honour the Tribunal’s 2008 rulings that Robert Mugabe’s land grab was unlawful. A review was ordered instead, but the Judges said they stayed put due to the “legitimate and reasonable expectation that, at the end of the initial independent review commissioned by the SADC Heads of State, their terms of office would be renewed.”

This expectation was then justified when that independent review confirmed that the Tribunal was properly established, and that its rulings had jurisdiction across the region, and that its protocol was in accordance with international law.

But instead of upholding the review findings, a SADC Summit in May took the decision to dissolve the Tribunal for a further 12 months, dealing a devastating blow to the rule of law in the region. The move has been described as ‘regressive’ because it denies individuals access to justice when they have no legal recourse in their own countries.

Pillay on Monday said that SADC citizens cannot be denied their right to access the court, explaining that at least 80% of cases before the Tribunal were individuals against their governments. He also warned that the decision is a threat to the SADC Treaty, with respect to human rights and the rule of law. He said that efforts must intensify to ensure that regional Justice Ministers and Attorney Generals don’t repeal the Treaty, in order to reform the Tribunal.

He emphasised that SADC itself is supposed to be under the Tribunal’s jurisdiction, as set out in the Treaty.

But the court is set to remain suspended until May next year and in that time, no cases will be heard. Top legal and human rights groups have all said the decision is not only a massive blow to the rule of law, but also indicates that the SADC leadership does not have the rights of its citizens at heart.

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