Breakthrough in fight to restore Southern Africa rights court

Efforts to reinstate the Southern African human rights court have been rewarded with an important breakthrough, after Africa’s top human rights body agreed to consider the case.

The African Commission was approached last month over the suspension of the regional human rights Tribunal by Southern African leaders last year. The SADC heads of state had agreed to review the roles and functions of the court, after it ruled against Robert Mugabe and his land grab campaign. In effect the regional leaders’ refused to bring Mugabe to order over his contempt of the Tribunal and instead suspended the court.

This has left the entire region’s citizens with no legal recourse against their governments and has been slammed as a ‘retrogressive’ and a massive blow for Southern Africa’s human rights commitments.

The closure of the court led to the launch of a landmark legal application, in which all 15 SADC leaders were cited as respondents. The case was launched by Zimbabwean farmers Luke Tembani and Ben Freeth, in place of his late father-in-law Mike Campbell, who all lost land as part of the land grab.

The Tribunal ruled in 2008 that the scheme was unlawful, and ordered Mugabe’s government to compensate farmers who lost land, and protect the remaining farmers from future illegal seizures. But the Mugabe regime ignored the Tribunal’s rulings and was repeatedly held in contempt because of ongoing land seizures and threats against the remaining commercial farming community.

Freeth and Tembani then decided last month to take their case against SADC leaders to the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, in the hope the case will be handed to the Commission’s human rights court.

In response to the application lodged by Namibian lawyer Norman Tjombe, the Commission said it would consider the case and invited further submissions. In a letter to Tjombe, Dr Mary Maboreke, Secretary to the Commission, wrote that they had “considered your complaint and decided to be seized of it.” She said, “the matter had been registered and referenced.”

Freeth and Tembani’s legal team has two months to make further submissions, after which the Commission will proceed with deliberations on the admissibility of the complaint.

Thoba Poyo-Dlwati from the SADC Lawyers Association on Monday welcomed this latest development, calling it a “good step in the right direction.” She told SW Radio Africa that this is a positive development for a region that has no other choice but to seek assistance from high-level African groupings.

“The African Commission would really be fulfilling its role as a human rights watchdog by taking this on. It is clear the Commission or even the African Union is the only available route for recourse on this critical issue,” she said.

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