Chatham House Event on the African Court on Human Rights

by Kevin Jon Heller

I recently posted an invite to a Chatham House international law discussion group about the new African Court on Human Rights.  The event was obviously a rousing success, as the following report by Sonya Sceats indicates:

Last Monday night (23 March 2009) at Chatham House we were very privileged to host a fascinating discussion about Africa’s new regional human rights court, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

More than 200 people turned up to hear and debate with our distinguished panel, chaired by Lord Steyn, a former UK Law Lord and outspoken champion of human rights. The other panelists were Judge Bernard Ngoepe (African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights), Ms Sanji Monageng (Chairperson of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and recent appointee to the ICC), and Ms Nobuntu Mbelle (a prominent civil society human rights specialist). Judge Ngoepe introduced the Court and explained some of the many challenges it faces, while Ms Monageng and Ms Mbelle shared perspectives on the Court from the Commission and civil society respectively.

The question and answer session following the three presentations was particularly rich. Ben Kioko, chief counsel of the AU, was called upon by civil society activists to explain current AU deliberations over whether to grant the Court jurisdiction over international crimes (a decision on this is expected in mid-2009), and also to address the question of why individuals and NGOs have been denied direct access to the Court (this is seen by many as the Court’s greatest shortcoming).

There were also many questions about the key issue of enforcement (according to Ms Monageng, compliance with the decisions of the Commission is as low as 34%). Responsibility for enforcing the Court’s judgments ultimately rests with the AU Assembly which may impose political and economic sanctions on non-compliant states, and Mr Kioko explained that the AU is currently putting in place processes to support this responsibility. Judge Ngoepe had earlier suggested that financial institutions such as the IMF and World Bank could consider making aid to African states conditional on compliance with judgments of the Court.

We also learned during the evening that a first case has been filed with the Court, challenging the jurisdiction of Senegal to try former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré.

Chatham House has produced a briefing paper on the Court which we launched at the event. The briefing paper explains the genesis of the Court and its eventual merger with the African Court of Justice (the merged court, which is not expected to come into being for a few years, will be known as the African Court of Justice and Human Rights). It also canvasses the ways in which these two Courts can be expected to spearhead new jurisprudence (e.g. on socio-economic and group rights) and the many challenges they will confront in their early years.

The briefing paper is available at

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