Tanzania Withdraws Jurisdiction from the African Court. What recourse remains for Tanzanians?

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On November 21, 2019, Tanzania withdrew from Article 34(6) of the African Charter’s Protocol: the provision by which States accept the competence of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights to receive cases from individuals and NGOs. Tanzania is only the second State—after Rwanda—to withdraw from Article 34(6). When Rwanda made its Article 34(6) withdrawal in 2016, the African Court mandated a notice period of one year for withdrawals and declared that the withdrawal would have no legal effect on cases pending before the Court.

Applying the Rwandan precedent to Tanzania’s withdrawal suggests that Tanzanians can only continue to file before the Court until the one-year notice period expires, on November 20, 2020. This change is significant, as individuals comprise the overwhelming majority of applications to the African Court.

Despite the closure of this important avenue for Tanzanians seeking remedies for human rights violations, there are other avenues through which Tanzanians can bring their claims. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the UN Treaty Bodies provide two such avenues.

A. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights

The African Commission is a quasi-judicial body tasked with the interpretation of the African Charter. Distinct from the African Court, the Commission can hear complaints against States Parties to the African Charter, including Tanzania.

The Commission presents a viable alternative to filing with the Court in several ways. By turning to the Commission, Tanzanian applicants can continue to build jurisprudence in the African continent and pursue Tanzania’s compliance with its human rights obligations under the African Charter. Successful petitions enshrine human rights norms in Tanzania, as well as in all States Parties to the African Charter, and applicants can secure reparations for the harms they have suffered.

Additionally, the Commission has shown interest in ruling on human rights claims in Tanzania, despite Tanzania’s withdrawal. On November 22, 2019, just a day after Tanzania’s withdrawal, the Commission published a statement to Tanzania strongly urging its government to guarantee a range of public freedoms and to protect human rights activists. Tanzania’s withdrawal may only serve to heighten the Commission’s interest in the State’s human rights compliance.

Although the Commission can begin to fill the gap left by Tanzania’s withdrawal for individuals who have suffered human rights abuses, it is not a replacement for the Court. First, the Commission faces a severe backlog in cases: in June 2019, the Commission had 240 cases pending. If Tanzanians seek redress before the Commission in the same numbers as they did before the Court, they can expect to see prolonged delays in having their petitions heard.

Second, Tanzanian applicants may not always see favourable decisions from the Commission enforced at state level. Tanzania is required to submit biannual reports to the African Commission on its human rights compliance, but Tanzania has only submitted two such reports: one in 1992 and another in 2008. Because of this lack of data, as well as the minimal formal policy guiding these state-reporting measures, it is difficult for the Commission to monitor whether Tanzania is implementing its decisions and recommendations. Moreover, Tanzania does not appear to have enforced the one decision on the merits that the Commission decided against Tanzania.

Despite these complications, the African Commission can fill some of the gap that Tanzania’s withdrawal from the African Court will leave post-November.

B. UN Human Rights Bodies

The UN Treaty Bodies can also hear human rights claims against Tanzania.

Two of the UN Treaty Bodies have jurisdiction over Individual Complaints filed against Tanzania: the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW Committee) and the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD Committee). Tanzania ratified the Optional Protocol to the CEDAW in 2006 and the Optional Protocol to the CRPD in 2009, thus recognising the competence of both bodies to consider communications against Tanzania.  

Where claims allege a violation of either the CEDAW or the CRPD, Tanzanians may consider bringing an Individual Complaint to CEDAW or CRPD Committees, respectively. Though the Treaty Bodies present a wholly different forum for complaints than the regional human rights tribunals of the African Court and Commission, they go a long way to filling the gap left by Tanzania’s withdrawal.

The longevity and strength of the UN Treaty Bodies lends their judgments gravity and impact. Jurisprudence from both the CEDAW and CRPD Committees shines a light on, and seeks to remedy, human rights violations the world over. Tanzanian lawyers and activists bringing complaints before these Committees can use the international respect and clout of these bodies to their advantage, to build awareness of human rights issues in Tanzania and to support their in-country efforts.

Importantly, Tanzania generally complies with its administrative obligations under both the CEDAW and CRPD by submitting its periodic reports. Neither Committee has heard many Individual Complaints against Tanzania, though, which makes analysing the likelihood of their enforcement difficult. The CEDAW Committee has heard one Individual Complaint against Tanzania, following which Tanzania implemented some—but not all—of the Committee’s recommendations. The CRPD Committee has heard two complaints against Tanzania, with similarly mixed results. Though Tanzania’s limited track record on enforcement may raise questions about the utility of bringing claims to the Treaty Bodies after November 2020, it does not diminish the utility of the UN as way forward for Tanzanians who have suffered human rights abuses.

***

From November 20, 2020, Tanzanian individuals and NGOs will be deprived of an important avenue through which to bring human rights claims. It is clear, though, that Tanzania’s withdrawal does not doom all human rights claims against the state. Individuals and NGOs must turn to alternative forums to fill the gap left by Tanzania’s withdrawal.

Meanwhile, international groups should recognise the critical work being done by domestic advocates to raise awareness of these changes within Tanzania.

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