By Florian Karner
In the shadow of the COVID-19 crisis, Côte d’Ivoire and Benin withdrew an important special declaration to the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the Court) in just over a week. The declaration has so far allowed individuals and non-governmental organizations to apply to the Court in the form of an individual petition. These two West African states are thus restricting the precious rights of their citizens and weakening both their national systems and the African human rights protection system as a whole. Regressions of the rule of law by reform partners
With immediate effect, both countries recently withdrew their special declaration under Article 34 (6) of the Court’s founding protocol, which previously allowed non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and individuals to bring cases of suspected human rights violations directly to the Court. They thus follow the example of Rwanda and Tanzania, which had already withdrawn their declarations in March 2016 and December 2019 respectively. The declaration allowed civil society organizations and individuals to bring cases directly to the Court. It was as follows: NGOs and citizens of the respective countries could file complaints against the countries in sensitive areas such as political participation, inadequate judicial decisions, treatment of prisoners or freedom of the press. If the panel of 11 judges, currently chaired by the Ivorian judge Sylvain Oré, comes to the conclusion that the state has not fulfilled its commitments in the corresponding area, it condemns the state, which in principle has the duty to follow and implement this court decision – even if there are no sanctions for non-application.
The Court was established by a Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights establishing an African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which entered into force in 2004. Its mandate is to strengthen and complement the African Union (AU) Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which oversees the Human Rights Charter. Thirty (30) of the fifty-five (55) AU Member States have signed the associated protocol. Ten (10) States had meanwhile deposited the Special Declaration by the time the above-mentioned States withdrew. The decision of the governments of Côte d’Ivoire and Benin is justified by the fact that all too often, NGOs or individuals, particularly from the opposition camp, turn to the Court and the State party is condemned. They have therefore announced loud and clear that they are withdrawing their statement because they consider the Court’s judgments to be biased and illegal – in order to put an end, they say, to the Court’s interference in their countries’ internal affairs. The good news is that both countries will remain members of the Charter of Human Rights and, by extension, of the Court itself. The bad news is that two countries that are, among others, privileged reform partners of the German government and members of Compact with Africa, a G20 reform initiative, reinforce authoritarian tendencies and seem to be guided by a false sense of justice.
The context in Benin
On 17 April, the court ordered the Beninese government to postpone municipal elections following a request by Sébastien Ajavon, a political opponent of President Talon and currently in exile in France. The judges ruled that his political participation would be irretrievably compromised by his forced absence. A government spokesman justified the government’s withdrawal by the court’s repeated “legal blunders”. The Court is distancing itself from its real role, as an electoral process, in particular, is a national matter and is governed by the national constitution. No regional or international actor should interfere in this process, according to the Cotonou Declaration. Communal elections were held on 17 May as planned by the Government of Benin.
The context in Côte d’Ivoire
On 22 April, the Court decided to suspend the arrest warrant against former Prime Minister and former Speaker of Parliament Guillaume Soro, who is currently in exile in France. Soro was subsequently sentenced in absentia on 28 April in a one-day trial to 20 years in prison for embezzlement of public funds. As a result, the Ivorian government announced in a statement on the same day that it was withdrawing the special declaration under Article 34 (6). This was justified by the Court’s “serious and unacceptable campaigns” against the Ivorian state. Already with its decision on the necessary reform of the National Electoral Law Commission, the Court had previously provoked the discontent of the Ivorian government. The opposition strongly condemned the government’s withdrawal and stressed, among other things, the absence of a parliamentary vote.