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

(photo credit)

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.

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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.

African Court issues its first judgment on women’s rights

On 11 May 2018, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights issued a landmark judgment in the case APDF and IHRDA versus the Republic of Mali. For the first time in its history, the Court found a violation of the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa. The Court held that Malian Family Code violates women’s rights as recognized under international law, and condemned the State of Mali to modify its legislation.

Two civil society organisations had lodged a complaint before the African Court in September 2016 alleging that the Malian Family code adopted in 2011 is not compatible with the State’s obligations under international law. The Court therefore proceeded to examine if the code was in conformity with human rights instruments Mali had ratified, and found that several provisions of this code are not.

The Malian Family Code permits marriage for girls from the age of 16-years. In specific circumstances, the minimum age for marriage for girls may be lowered to 15-years. Consent is not always a requirement for a marriage to be valid. The African Court found that the relevant provisions of the Family Code are blatant violations of the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol) under which the minimum age for marriage is 18 years for both women and men. The Maputo Protocol also provides that free and full consent in marriage must be protected by law. In matters of inheritance, Islamic law and customary practice is the applicable regime by default in Mali. This means that women only receive half of what men receive and children born out of wedlock receive inheritance only when their parents so decide. In relation to this issue, the African Court emphasized that women and natural children should be entitled to inheritance by law, and as such, the Family Code should not allow the application of rules contrary to this principle. The Court held that the relevant provisions of the Malian Family Code are discriminatory and perpetuate practices or traditions harmful towards women and children, in violation of the Maputo Protocol, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

The political context in which the Malian Family Code was adopted, characterized by vigorous opposition by religious movements to a more progressive legislation, was at the heart of the arguments put forward by the State of Mali in its defence. But to the African Court, this was no good excuse for passing a law contradictory to its international obligations. It thus ordered Mali to modify its legislation as well as to take measures to inform, teach, educate and sensitize the population on the rights of women, and to report to the Court on the implementation of the judgement within a period of two years. Continue reading

Kenyan court knocks down criminal defamation, safeguards freedom of expression

Efforts to create more space for free expression in Africa have been strengthened by the Kenyan Judiciary. In the case of Jacqueline Okuta & Anor vs. AG & Others, the High Court of Kenya on 6 of February 2017 annulled section 194 of the Penal Code that provides for the offence of criminal defamation. This decision is significant in safeguarding the fundamental rights of Kenyans, particularly in light of the forthcoming general elections. It curtails the misuse of criminal law provisions by political figures to curtail speech they consider unfavorable. Journalists especially have been victims of criminal defamation sanctions for exposing corruption and unlawful activities of public officials.

The harmful and undesirable consequences of criminalizing defamation, viz. the chilling possibilities of arrest, detention and two years’ imprisonment, are manifestly excessive in their effect and unjustifiable in a modern democratic society”, Judge Mativo of the High Court of Kenya pronounced in his judgment.

The Judge noted that upon promulgation of the Constitution of Kenya in 2010, it was expected that certain provisions in Kenya’s existing laws were to be amended to align them to the letter and spirit of the Constitution. However, seven years later, this expectation had not been met. Relying on regional and international standards on freedom of expression, the Court concluded that criminal defamation is unconstitutional, reasoning that “the chilling effect of criminalizing defamation is exacerbated by the maximum punishment of two years’ imprisonment imposable for any contravention which is clearly excessive and patently disproportionate for the purpose of suppressing objectionable or opprobrious statements. The Court further held that imprisonment as a sanction was not “reasonably justifiable in a democratic society” and that the availability of civil remedies afforded sufficient redress for injury to one’s reputation.

Criminal defamation continues to prominently feature in Penal Codes of African countries especially in East Africa. The High Court of Kenya is the first court in the region to declare that criminal defamation violates the right to freedom of expression.

The case in Kenya arose from the indictment of two petitioners, Jacqueline Okuta and Jackson Njeru, who were each charged with criminal defamation for allegedly publishing defamatory statements on their Facebook account “Buyer beware-Kenya.” The case complaint was based on a post in which the complainants were pictured and named as being wanted for illegal possession and handling of property, and misuse of a telecommunication device. The petitioners then sought to challenge section 194 of the Penal Code before the Constitutional and Human Rights division of the High Court, arguing that the provision was unconstitutional and violated the right to freedom of expression.

A key question is what impact the decision from Kenya’s High Court will have in East Africa, and possibly in the wider African region. The judgment follows and references the landmark decision of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights in the case of Lohé Issa Konaté v. Burkina Faso, but goes further than that Court’s finding that criminal defamation laws should only be used as a last resort when there is a serious threat to the enjoyment of other human rights in exceptional circumstances such as hate speech and incitement. It does so by finding that “any continued enforcement of criminal defamation laws by the government would be a violation of the fundamental and constitutionally guaranteed right to the freedom of expression.”

This corresponds with the minority dissenting opinion in the African Court case, in which 4 of the 10-judge bench found that the “’State’s duty to enforce collective security, morality and common interest’ cannot justify the criminalization of expression of speech by way of criminal defamation laws of any kind, whether punishable by incarceration or not. Access to civil action, civil sanctions together with specifically defined crimes for safeguarding national security, public peace and the common interest should be sufficient.”

The Kenyan case highlights the potential of strategic litigation as an effective tool in bringing about social change where lobbying efforts have failed. It reinforces the efforts of other national courts in Africa like Zimbabwe that have decriminalized defamation twice, once under its previous and once under its current constitution. Other countries in the region, such as Ghana, abolished criminal defamation laws through law reform. This is in line with the continental campaign to decriminalize defamation by the African Union Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Efforts to do the same in East Africa have so far been without result, especially where countries like Uganda previously upheld the constitutionality of criminal defamation laws on grounds that they are “relevant” in protecting reputation.

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Journalist Ronald Ssembuusi (middle) leaving court with lawyer Catherine Anite (left). Photo courtesy of HRNJ-Uganda.

A challenge to Uganda’s criminal defamation laws is currently pending before the East African Court of Justice. The case, brought on behalf of the now-deceased Ugandan journalist Ronald Ssembuusi, argues that his conviction to a prison sentence of one year was in violation of Uganda’s obligations under the East African Community Treaty. The matter has garnered much interest from the international community, with not only the African Union and United Nations Special Rapporteurs on freedom of expression having requested to make amicus submissions in the case, but also a coalition of 20 African and international NGOs. It will be interesting to see what impact the Kenyan judgment might have on the case. If the East African Court rules in favor of Ssembuusi, the judgment will positively impact all East African Community countries, which include Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda Burundi and South Sudan.

This post was co-authored by Catherine Anite, a human rights lawyer from Uganda and part of the legal team litigating the Ssembuusi case. Nani Jansen Reventlow was lead counsel on the Konaté case. This post has been cross-posted from Harvard’s Cyberlaw Clinic blog.