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Judgment in the First Case Before the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights: A Missed Opportunity or Mockery of International Law in Africa?

Chacha Bhoke Murungu

University of Pretoria - Centre for Human Rights

December 21, 2009

On 15 December 2009 the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (‘the African Human Rights Court, or ‘the court’) sitting in Arusha, Tanzania delivered its first ever judgment. The purpose of this article is to reflect and comment on several issues and principles found in this first ever case to be filed before the court. In the course of discussion, the article will present the conclusion reached by the court and the Separate Opinion of Judge Fatsah Ouguergouz. At first, a discussion is on the arguments raised by the applicant, Mr Michelot Yogogombaye against Senegal in respect of the on-going legal proceedings instituted in Senegal against Hissene Habre, former President of Chad, charging him with crimes against humanity, particularly torture committed in Chad between 1982 and December 1990. Then, a discussion is on Senegal’s preliminary objections to the application touching on the lack of jurisdiction by the court on the basis that Senegal has not made a declaration under article 34(6) of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Establishment of an African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the Protocol) allowing individuals to institute cases against it before the court.

Although the judgment of the court did not go into the merits of the case, this article discusses the implications that the judgment would have had on the developments of international law in Africa, had it gone into merits and substance of the case. It examines several key issues that had been raised by the applicant before the court. These include ‘functional immunity’ of former heads of state in relation to serious human rights violations as alluded to by the applicant; the principle of ‘universal jurisdiction’; retroactivity of penal laws; status of a political asylee under the law on refugees; issues of access to the court by individuals under the concept of personal jurisdiction (jurisdiction ratione personae) as reflected in article 5(3) of the Protocol, and whether the court may ‘receive’ applications from individuals against a state which has not made an express declaration under article 34(6) of the Protocol. In this connection, the article follows the interpretation of the words ‘receive’ and shall’ as found in articles 5(3) and 34(6) of the Protocol, and offers its own interpretation of ‘individuals’ as used in the same provisions of the Protocol. Further, it examines the possibility of the court’s judgment to suspend the decision of the Assembly of the African Union (AU) mandating Senegal to try Hissene Habre. The article further examines whether the court had been seized with an opportunity to develop its own jurisprudence on international law in Africa, in line with the provisions of the Protocol.

In addition to the questions raised, the article also examines whether the applicant in the case had indeed understood some of the principles he contended that Senegal has violated in prosecuting Hissene Habre or his arguments are simply a mockery of international law and obligations of states in the prosecution and punishment of individuals who commit human rights violations.

To understand the context of the judgment of the court, it is necessary that the application and preliminary objections as well as statement of defense filed before the court be discussed as a whole. But, before attempting to discuss the judgment of the court, it is necessary to consider the pre-existing legal proceedings against Mr Hissene Habre and Senegal before different legal and judicial institutions in the world. These proceedings will inform the readers about the context within which the present judgment of the court came into being. For brevity reasons, it suffices to highlight here that Hissene Habre sits at the centre of various legal proceedings before national and international judicial bodies. The prior legal proceedings that had been instituted against Mr Hissene Habre in Senegal and Belgium, as well as against Senegal before the United Nations Committee against Torture (CAT) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) are the ones that also have an impact on the first case before the African Human Rights Court. What follows below is now a discussion on the judgment in the first case before the African Human Rights Court and its implications in Africa.

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Date posted: January 15, 2010  

Suggested Citation

Murungu, Chacha Bhoke, Judgment in the First Case Before the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights: A Missed Opportunity or Mockery of International Law in Africa? (December 21, 2009). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1526539 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1526539

Contact Information

Chacha Bhoke Murungu (Contact Author)
University of Pretoria - Centre for Human Rights ( email )
Private Bag X20
Hatfield 0028
South Africa
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