Malawi and regional human rights activists have accused southern African leaders of undermining the rule of law by closing the doors of the Sadc Tribunal to the regionâ€™s citizens.
The closure, whose decision was taken at the just-ended annual summit of Sadc Heads of State and Government in Maputo, Mozambique, puts the tribunal in limbo and denies individual access to the court.
In May last year, Sadc leaders suspended the work of the tribunal for another yearâ€”ignoring recommendations of an independent study commissioned by Sadc itself, their duty to the citizens of the region and the devastating impact of this decision on human rights and peopleâ€™s ability to access justice when things fail in their respective countries.
The summitâ€™s final communique says the Sadc leaders have â€œresolved that a new protocol on the tribunal should be negotiated and its mandate confined to interpretation of the Sadc Treaty and Protocols relating to disputes between member states.â€
The original protocol made it clear that individuals also had access to the courtâ€”and all previous cases heard by the tribunal were brought by individuals.
â€œThe decision to deny the regionâ€™s inhabitants any access to the tribunal is astounding and entirely without any lawful basis,â€ said Nicole Fritz, director of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) in a statement. â€œCivil society groups were worried that Sadc leaders would conspire to weaken the tribunal, but this is far worse than we had feared. Sadc has destroyed it.
â€œThe decision…is also completely at odds with the best practice of other regional institutions and undermines the protection of human rights and hopes for future economic growth and development.â€
Said Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) executive director Undule Mwakasungula: â€œAlthough the tribunal has not benefited the Sadc citizens, the decision taken by the leaders is very unfortunate and a blow to promotion of fundamental human rights in the region.
â€œThat is why as CSOs, we are and have been lobbying and advocating for a people-centred tribunal. Therefore, we will continue to lobby for and advocateÂ the tribunal to be people-centred, for the tribunal to be independent in decision-making and focus on human rights promotion and rule of law.â€
Mwakasungula has appealed to President Joyce Banda to impress upon fellow regional presidents to reverse the Maputo decision.
â€œWe will take the opportunity as CSOs in Malawi to engage her on this important issue since she is the vice-chairperson for the regional block. If Sadc citizens cannot access the tribunal, then [it] is meaningless,â€ he said.
The tribunal has been defunct for the past two years after Sadc leaders demanded a review of its powers and functions, following a series of cases in which it had ruled against the Zimbabwean government.