In a decision that can be interpreted a historic milestone and a ‘triple high-five’ for the promotion of accountability for women’s human rights in Africa; for the recognition of violence against women as a violation of human rights, and for the emerging role of African regional courts in addressing human rights issues, on the 24th of January, 2017, the ECOWAS Court (the ECCJ or the Court) ruled that it has the competence to hear a case of domestic violence instituted against the Federal Government of Nigeria by two NGOs. I review that decision in this post.
The NGOs – the Women Advocates Research Documentation Centre (WARDC) and the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA) – had jointly filed a suit in August 2015 at the Court on behalf of Nigerian citizen, Ms. Mary Sunday, an alleged victim of severe domestic violence from her fiancé (a policeman), which had taken place three years earlier in August 2012.
WARDA and IHRDA alleged that since the attack happened, the Nigerian authorities had failed to carry out an independent and impartial investigation on the allegations of severe domestic violence suffered by Ms. Sunday. As a result of the lack of effective investigation and prosecution of the offender, they argued that the Nigerian government had violated several rights of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights; the Protocol to the African Charter on the Rights of Women in Africa, and other international human rights agreements. These rights included the right to dignity, to freedom from torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment, and the right to a remedy.
The case was filed before the Court for human rights violations pursuant to Article 3 of the Supplementary Protocol of the Court. This provision gives the Court the competence to determine matters of human rights violations of citizens of the ECOWAS Community. The Nigerian government lodged a preliminary objection based on three grounds; that the Applicants had not established a cause of action; that the Applicants had no locus standi, and that the Court lacked the jurisdiction to hear the case. The Court was urged to dismiss and strike out the case for lack of merit.
In delivering the Court’s ruling, the Honourable Justice Micah Wilkins Wright, held that the case was admissible; that the Applicants had established a cause of action and also have locus standi to file the case.
Though this decision relates only to jurisdiction and admissibility by the ECOWAS Court, it is certainly noteworthy for the clear signal communicated by the Court to continue to hear cases relating to women’s human rights.
In 2008, in Mani v. Niger, (Hadijatou Mani Koraou v The Republic of Niger, Judgment No. ECW/CCJ/JUD/06/08 of 27 October 2008, available at http://www.refworld.org/docid/491168d42.html), the ECCJ broke new jurisprudential ground on women’s human rights when it found that that the Niger “[B]ecomes responsible under international as well as national law for any form of human rights violations of the applicant founded on slavery because of its tolerance, passivity, inaction and abstention with regard to this practice.” (See paras 84-85, based on its recognition of the failure of the Nigerien courts to denounce the instance of slavery, and the failure of the Nigerien authorities to bring a criminal prosecution. Emphasis my own).
In a decision that drew from instruments and decisions from international criminal law; international human rights law; African, Council of Europe and Inter-American regional human rights instruments; the ECOWAS Revised Treaty and Protocol on the ECCJ, and Nigerien domestic law, the ECCJ demonstrated an innovative interpretive approach to both the crime of slavery, and its particular manifestation for women.
The ECCJ’s openness to hearing cases that directly relate to women’s human rights, and to contributing to human rights jurisprudence at the African level, directly challenges perceptions of African human rights institutions as being ‘weak and ineffectual’ or ‘dysfunctional.’ (This description has been noted by several commentators including Obiora Chinedu Okafor who has observed that most commentators have historically described the workings and effectiveness of the African human rights systems thus. See Obiora Chinedu Okafor, The African Human Rights System, Activist Forces, and International Institutions, (CUP, 2007) at 63).
In the under-litigated area of women’s human rights both within regional human rights systems in general, and within international human rights law, this decision on jurisdiction and admissibility by the ECCJ is welcome. We await the details and the results of the hearing with great interest.
NOTE on details on the case;
- See the ECOWAS Court website for a Press Release on the decision http://www.courtecowas.org/site2012/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=360&Itemid=15
- See IHRDA website for brief summary of the facts of the case – http://www.ihrda.org/2015/12/ihrda-wardc-on-behalf-of-mary-sunday-v-the-federal-republic-of-nigeria-mary-sunday-case/