ECOWAS Court Suspends Judicial Activities in Response to COVID-19 Outbreak

By: Katherine Davis

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

ABUJA, Nigeria – On March 20, 2020, the Community Court of Justice (ECOWAS) suspended its 2020 travel-related activities and all judicial activities until further notice in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The ECOWAS Court has taken precautionary action to ensure the safety of their staff and plan to reschedule travel-related activities as soon as the pandemic is over. Other judicial activities have yet to be rescheduled.

ECOWAS Court Judges in session. Photo Courtesy of Realness Magazine.

Judicial activities that will be affected by this suspension include day-to-day operations by the Court’s departments, case hearings and judgements, and other ECOWAS gatherings in Abuja.

In a statement released on March 20, the President of the Court, Justice Edward Amoako Asante “urged staff not to panic, but to ensure that they remain calm, healthy, and go about their duties whilst ‘maintaining personal hygiene and social distancing.’” Staff will begin to work remotely and maintain contact with their departmental supervisors to continue day-to-day operations as smoothly as possible.

Travel related activities that will be affected by this suspension include the second judicial dialogue of the ECOWAS Court with the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights and training of the ECOWAS Court’s office managers; both were to have taken place in Arusha, Tanzania. On March 23, the African Court also suspended the majority of their judicial activities, including their 56th Ordinary Session, which began on March 2.

President Asante noted that ECOWAS is following the health advisories issued by the West African Health Organization (WAHO) and the World Health Organization. The ECOWAS Institutions were advised “to strongly discourage non-essential large gatherings of people; defer, cancel or postpone meetings with over 50 participants” and to employ using remote technology if possible.

President Asante explained, “we don’t want to subject staff to avoidable risk considering the global threat posed by this pandemic and consistent with the international response.” ECOWAS will continue its regular activities as soon as the pandemic is over.

Prior to the suspension, ECOWAS was scheduled to hear ten additional cases. These cases concerned violations of human rights by the countries of Burkina Faso, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Nigeria, and Niger. President Asante has not released a statement regarding the rescheduling of these cases and future cases.

For further information, please see:

African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights – African Court Suspends its 56th Ordinary Session Because of Outbreak of Coronavirus – 23 Mar. 2020

Community Court of Justice, ECOWAS – Court Suspends Judicial Activities Over Corona Virus – 20 Mar. 2020

World Health Organization – Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Advice for the Public – 18 Mar. 2020

Realnews Magazine – Coronavirus: Court Suspends 2020 Travel Related Programmes – 16 Mar. 2020

Community Court of Justice, ECOWAS – Cause List of 20th January 2020 and Subsequent Days Where Necessary – 13 Dec. 2020

ICC Presidency Sets Chamber for Yekatom and Ngaïssona Trial

By: Andrew Kramer

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

THE HAGUE, The Netherlands – On March 16, 2020, the Presidency of the International Criminal Court (“ICC”), the administrative organ of the ICC, issued a decision constituting Trial Chamber V. This decision referred the case of The Prosecutor v. Alfred Yekatom and Patrice Edouard Ngaïssona to Trial Chamber V.  The Presidency appointed Judge Bertram Schmitt, Judge Péter Kovács, and Judge Chang-ho Chung to oversee the trial. 

Patrice Edouard Ngaïssona (left) and Alfred Yekatom (right) in pretrial proceedings before the ICC. Photo Courtesy of the International Criminal Court.

This decision follows a relatively short pre-trial phase in which two separate cases were brought before Pre-Trial Chamber II on November 23, 2018 (Yekatom), and January 25, 2019 (Ngaïssona).  On February 23, 2019, Pre-Trial Chamber II joined the cases in order to enhance the fairness and expeditiousness of proceedings, reduce the duplication of evidence, and eliminate inconsistency in presentation.  It is not uncommon for the pre-trial phase of some cases to last several years. 

On December 11, 2019, Pre-Trial Chamber II partially confirmed the charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity brought against Yekatom and Ngaïssona.  The two militia leaders from the Central African Republic (“CAR”) are accused of being involved in a widespread attack on the Muslim civilian population of the country between September 2013 and December 2014.  Among other crimes, Yekatom and Ngaïssona are specifically accused of murder, rape, intentionally directing an attack against a building dedicated to religion, forcible transfer of population and displacement of the civilian population, severe deprivation of physical liberty, cruel treatment, and torture.

This case has presented unique challenges for the ICC.  In a previous pre-trial appeal, The Prosecutor requested additional time to gather witnesses because this case is larger than most that the ICC has previously handled. Larger cases tend to require more witnesses, which in turn requires more protective measures, and more information to review.  However, as the Court noted, the security situation in the CAR is particularly unreliable, and the issue of witness protection has influenced the process of gathering evidence.  For example, the Court has conditioned the authorization of arrest warrants on whether witnesses could be adequately protected.

Moving forward, Trial Chamber V will hold status conferences, confer with the parties and participants, set the trial date, and determine the procedures necessary to facilitate fair and expeditious proceedings.  At trial, the Prosecution must prove the guilt of the accused beyond a reasonable doubt.  There is no separate jury in the ICC; the three judges issue a verdict, and if guilty, a sentence. 

For further information, please see:

International Criminal Court – Case Information Sheet: Situation in Central African Republic II – 17 Mar. 2020

International Criminal Court – Yekatom and Ngaïssona case: ICC Presidency constitutes Trial Chamber V – 17 Mar. 2020

Coalition for the International Criminal Court – ICC Pre Trial Chamber II confirms charges against Alfred Yekatom and Patrice-Edouard Ngaïssona – 17 Dec. 2020

African Commission Seeks Justice in South Sudan Despite Non-Cooperation by State Government

By: Eronmwon Joyce Irogue

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

JUBA, South Sudan – The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (“ACHPR”) expressed its fears concerning the “non-implementation of the Revitalized Peace Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan of September 2018” in a press statement released in February 2020. The war crimes court of South Sudan was established through the 2015 and 2018 peace deals with the goal of bringing violators to justice and providing retribution for victims of the atrocities committed during the South Sudan Civil War. This court is now threatened by the South Sudan government’s use of “US-based lobbyists” to prevent the court’s creation.  

South Sudanese soldier walks past group of women. Photo Courtesy of Reuters/Siegfried Modola.

Many human rights violations have occurred in South Sudan, but they peaked in 2013 during the armed conflict between President Salva Kirr Mayardit’s forces and opposition forces led by former Vice President Riek Machar. In 2014, South Sudanese Civil Organizations wrote an open letter to ACHPR to address the incessant violations of human rights and humanitarian law in Sudan, urging ACHPR to issue a resolution and establish a Commission of Inquiry.

In 2018, the Commissioner Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in South Sudan sent a Letter of Concern to the President of South Sudan. The letter highlighted the increase in violations of women’s right to security and cited the more than 150 women who have been attacked and raped in the Northern region of South Sudan between November and December 2018. This demonstrates the continuing high rate of human rights violations in South Sudan despite the civil war having ended.

The ACHPR is substantially limited in South Sudan because it is the only African Union country which does not permit the ACHPR to hear cases. Due to this arrangement, human rights violations, especially those perpetrated against women, will continue unless the South Sudanese government stops delaying the creation of the war crimes court and recognizes the importance of the brokered peace deal. This will be the first step in the right direction for South Sudan and Africa.

For further information, please see:

African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights – Press Statement on the Human and Peoples’ Rights Situation in South Sudan – 21 Feb. 2020

Human Rights Watch – South Sudan Cynical Bid to Block War Crimes Court – 30 Apr. 2019

African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights – Letter of Concern to The Republic of South Sudan – 28 Dec. 2018

Human Rights Watch – Open letter To The Members of The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights From South Sudanese Civil Society Organizations – 7 Mar. 2014

Open Society Justice Initiative – African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights – June 2013

ECHR Rules Spain Did Not Breach the Convention in Returning Migrants to Morocco

By: Nadia Abed

Journal of Global Rights and Organizations, Associate Articles Editor

STRASBOURG, France — On February 13, 2020, the European Court of Human Rights (“ECHR”) ruled that Spain did not breach the European Convention on Human Rights (“the Convention”) in returning migrants to Morocco for attempting to cross the fences onto European Union territory in the case of N.D. and N.T. v. Spain.

Police office scales fence climbed by migrants at Melilla border. Photo Courtesy of AFP.

On August 13, 2014, hundreds of migrants attempted to storm their way onto European Union territory by scaling fences to reach the city of Melilla, a Spanish enclave surrounded by Moroccan territory. Moroccan police were able to prevent about 500 migrants from scaling the outer fence, but around a hundred migrants succeeded, with 75 migrants reaching the top of the fence and a few landing on the other side on Spanish soil. Those who reached the soil were met by members of the Guardia Civil, the Spanish law enforcement, while others remained at the top of the fence.

Two individuals, N.D., a national of Mali, and N.T., a national of Côte d’Ivoire (“the applicants”), were of the few that remained at the top of the fence. After a few hours, the two climbed down and were apprehended by the Guardia Civil who “reportedly handcuffed them, took them back to Morocco and handed them over to the Moroccan authorities.”

The applicants lodged applications with the ECHR on February 12, 2015 alleging that there had been a violation of Protocol No. 4 Article 4 which prohibits collective expulsion of aliens and Article 13 which secures the right to an effective remedy. Through both Articles, the applicants claim that they were forced back to Morocco with “no chance to explain their circumstances, no chance to request asylum, and no chance to appeal their expulsion.”

On October 2, 2017, in its Chamber judgment, the Court held that there was a violation of Article 4 of Protocol No. 4 and a violation of Article 13 in conjunction with Article 4 of Protocol No. 4. On December 14, 2017, the Spanish Government requested the case be referred to the Grand Chamber under Article 43 of the Convention. On January 29, 2018 the Grand Chamber accepted and a hearing was held on September 26, 2018.

The Court reasoned that the applicants had attempted to enter Spanish territory in an unauthorized manner by taking advantage of a large crowd. In accordance with the Convention, States are required to “make available genuine and effective access to means of legal entry [and] should allow all persons who faced persecution to submit an application for protection.” As a result of not using the proper channels, States can refuse entry to their territories to aliens and asylum-seekers who fail, without convincing reason, to follow such requirements.

Regarding the applicants Article 4 of Protocol No. 4 claim, the Court noted that Spanish law had several possible means available to those seeking admission to their territory, such as applications for visas or international protection, therefore the State had provided genuine and effective access to its territory. Applicants’ did not allege they tried to enter Spanish territory by any legal means. The court concluded that the applicants had “placed themselves in jeopardy by participating in the storming of the border fences [and their expulsion was a] consequence of their own conduct.”

Regarding the applicants’ Article 13 claim taken in conjunction with Article 4 of Protocol No. 4, the Court explains that “the lack of an [individualized] procedure for [the applicants’] procedure for their removal had been the consequence of the applicants’ own conduct in placing themselves in an unlawful situation by crossing the Melilla border protection structures… at an [unauthorized] location.” Further, the Court concluded that there had not been a violation of Article 4 of Protocol No. 4 or Article 13 in conjunction with Article 4 of Protocol No. 4.

European Court of Human Rights – Forthcoming Grand Chamber judgment in a case concerning the immediate return of two migrants who tried to enter Spain by climbing the fences of the Melilla enclave – 6 Feb. 2020

European Court of Human Rights – Spain did not breach the Convention in returning migrants to Morocco who had attempted to cross the fences of the Melilla enclave – 12 Feb. 2020

European Court of Human Rights – Case of N.D. and N.T. v. Spain – 12 Feb. 2020

The Local Spain – Spain cleared by European Court of Human Rights over Removal of migrants at border fence – 13 Feb. 2020

Barred Access to African Court For Tanzanian Citizens and NGOs

By: Eronmwon Joyce Irogue

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

ARUSHA, Tanzania – In early December 2019, the Tanzanian government announced its withdrawal for the right of individuals to directly institute an action at the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Ironically, this Court is a regional human rights court is permanently located in Arusha, Tanzania.

Tanzanian President John Magufuli. Photo Courtesy of DW.

This new development may not be shocking due to the lingering incidence of human rights abuses prevalent under the tenure of President John Magufuli. However, this current occurrence deprives Tanzanian citizens of their right to seek justice before the court on issues of human rights. The timing of the withdrawal of the right to file cases at the Court amplified the fears of both human rights organizations and Tanzanian citizens concerning the dilapidating state of human rights in Tanzania.

The African Court is a regional court established by the African Union to address legal issues such as the protection of the rights for citizens in signatory states. Signatory states are bound by the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Since the Court is located in Tanzania, NGOs and individuals have sought recourse in the Court for human rights violations. In cases brought against the Tanzanian government, the Court has often ruled against the government, causing the decision for the withdrawal. The Tanzanian government has sought to prevent the condemnation of the human rights violations of President Magufuli’s regime such as violations of freedom.

In preventing individuals from bringing cases before the Court, the president has breached the Optional Declaration which was signed to give the protected citizens the right which the Tanzanian government now violates.  The request to withdraw undermines the Court’s authority and legitimacy as the enforcer of international law on the African continent. This decision may signal to other states which have signed the Optional Declaration to withdraw and disregard human rights violations without the possibility of regional redress for their citizens. This action puts the region one more step behind amongst its counterparts in other parts of the world.

For further information, please see:

Fair Planet – Tanzania Bars Citizens From Seeking Justice at the African Court – 8 Jan. 2020

Anadolu Agency – US bans Tanzanian politician over human rights abuse – 2 Jan. 2020

DW – Africa’s rights court suffer setback as Tanzania blocks cases – 12 June 2019

Human Rights Watch – Tanzania – 2018