Global Policy Forum

AU Launches People’s Court

Integrated Regional Information Networks
July 3, 2006

The African Union on Monday launched the continent's first court that gives states and people equal rights to challenge governments suspected of human rights violations or other infractions. Taking the podium and raising their right hands, 11 African legal experts pledged to "preserve, protect and defend" the African Charter of Human and People's Rights. The swearing-in ceremony took place at the end of a two-day summit of the AU, which was set up to debate continent-wide issues.

The African Court on Human and People's Rights, established on paper in 1998, will be based in the Tanzanian capital Arusha. It can apply and rule on any international treaty or law ratified by the state in question, including treaties that do not themselves refer violators to a court. States, AU organs, individuals and non-governmental organisations can all ask for rulings. "This court will strengthen jurisprudence and contribute to the promotion and protection of human rights in the continent," AU Commissioner for Political Affairs Julia Joiner told IRIN. "It means you have another level where states and people can seek recourse before the African Commission [on Human and People's Rights] and prosecutions can be made, not just judgments and resolutions," she said.

Impunity has taken center stage recently in Africa. On Sunday, the AU requested that Senegal try former Chadian President Hissene Habre, who has been living in exile in Senegal since 1990. Habre has been charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture. He has avoided trial so far because of legal wrangling over jurisdiction. In June, former Liberian President Charles Taylor was extradited from Sierra Leone to The Hague to answer to war crimes charges. The UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone retains jurisdiction. Officials in Liberia and Sierra Leone feared Taylor could destabilize the region if he were tried locally.

Africans in other countries who are keen to take the stand will have to wait until a second court, the African Court of Justice, is set up, said Joiner. That court then has to be merged with the People's Court before cases, such as those involving former rulers, will be heard. Although the People's Court is nascent, Monday's ceremony provided a glimmer of hope at a summit marked by the defeat of a proposed charter on democracy and governance, which was debated and eventually refused by African heads of state. The charter was supposed to make it easier for power to change hands through the ballot box. Negotiations broke down when some African leaders refused to agree to a clause banning standing presidents from extending their term limits by changing their countries' constitutions.

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