Promoting Access to Justice in Africa through Litigation

Grace Mbogo, Programme Officer – RWI Nairobi

Access to justice is a basic principle of rule of law that ensures that human rights are protected. One of the ways of promoting and protecting human rights is through legal empowerment which enables individuals to know and use the law to seek justice. RWI’s Regional Africa Programme (RAP) recognises litigation as a crucial legal empowerment intervention that is designed to advocate for the implementation of human right commitments by using the law to advance justice and advocate for social change. In fact, the Pan African Lawyers Union (PALU) and the East Africa Law Society (EALS), some of the Programme’s partners have litigated in their own capacities at the East African Court of Justice (EACJ) and the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights (African Court).

In 2021, under the Regional Africa Programme, both PALU and EALS have organised activities aimed at supporting litigation as a means of enhancing access to justice in Africa.  PALU for instance organised a symposium on implementation of decisions of Regional Courts and Tribunals in Africa and had a specific panel aimed at sensitizing National Human Rights Institutes (NHRIs) and selected Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) from the West Africa region on how to effectively litigate at regional and continental Courts and Tribunals.

Besides organising trainings and symposiums, PALU has a dedicated litigation committee, partly supported by the Regional Africa Programme, which provides support to litigants at the various stages of litigation, as well as to sensitize the citizens in Africa about the regional and continental redress mechanisms available to them.

Furthermore, two publications were developed under the Programme: A Litigants’ Manual on litigating at the ECOWAS Court (the Manual) and a Compendium of case briefs (the Compendium) of all the decisions of the ECOWAS Court of Justice from its inception to date.

The Manual provides support to current and prospective litigants by increasing the visibility of the ECOWAS Court and addressing some key topics on correct litigation procedures. The Compendium provides a quick but comprehensive dissection, in the form of a summary of the key elements of each case, offering a quick reference to the issues referred for determination; the relevant law the court applied; the reasoning, the outcome and orders.

Image 2: PALU organised symposium on implementation of Regional Courts Decisions

EALS on their part focused on capacity building through trainings on litigation and trial advocacy. EALS conducted seven (7) in-person trial advocacy trainings and twenty (20) webinars that aimed at building capacity of lawyers, civil society and other stakeholders that appear before the EACJ to equip them with skills to engage with the Court and familiarise them with judicial and operational aspects of the Court.

The Coalition for an Effective African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights commonly known as the African Court Coalition (ACC) and the Network for African National Human Rights Institutions (NANHRI) are two other Programme partners that had litigation capacities at the centre of their work in 2021. ACC and NANHRI conducted litigation trainings aimed at enhancing the capacities of their members to institute legal proceedings in the different Africa regional human rights mechanisms.

NANHRI convened two in-country trainings in Cameroon and Ethiopia for National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) on litigation and engagement with African regional human rights mechanisms. The litigation training in Ethiopia also included a specific session with Ethiopia based CSOs that committed after the training to apply for observer status before the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (African Commission) and to litigate human rights cases at the domestic level and elevate to regional level upon exhaustion/unavailability of local remedies. A participant from the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission noted the following:

The training has opened my eyes to the potential ways Ethiopia can engage and litigate before African regional human rights treaty bodies. As the Civil and Political Rights Department of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, we will work towards advocating for the ratification of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Establishment of an African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights and follow up on implementation of the decision of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in Haregewoin Gabre-Selassie and IHRDA (on behalf of former Dergue Officials) / Ethiopia 2013; and Equality Now and Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA) v. Federal Republic of Ethiopia, Communication 341/2007.”

Deborah Nyokabi, Programme Officer- NANHRI, noted following on the impact of the trainings:

“We derived a robust action plan during the training, and we have already seen tangible results such as the fact that the EHRC applied for affiliate status with the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC) thus gaining an avenue for strong engagement with the ACERWC. We will continue to monitor the action plan to support effective implementation. We would need support from RWI in terms of increasing funding for the litigation trainings to support a high number of participants as currently we are only able to reach 25-30 participants.”

Image 3: NANHRI organised Ethiopia Litigation Training targeting the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and Ethiopian CSOs

On its end, the African Court Coalition organised a series of three (3) virtual trainings targeting legal practitioners and CSOs and aimed at building their capacity and knowledge about the functioning of the African Court and the African Commission and their operating procedures. ACC received some positive feedback from the participants of these trainings. Cristina Francisco Gouveia, a lawyer and human rights defender from Luanda, Angola noted the following:

“The Portuguese-speaking virtual capacity building training organized by the African Court Coalition on the “Engagement with the African Court and African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights” which took place from 28 to 30 July 2021, was very important to me on a professional level, therefore, as a lawyer and human rights defender, it was very important to have had the opportunity to learn more about the functioning of the African Court and the African Commission.”

Similarly, Flaviana Charles an advocate and human rights activist from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania said the following on the training he attended:

“The modules of the training offered by the African Court Coalition on the Engagement with the African Court and Africa Commission have been quite instrumental to me particularly in working and advising individual clients, organisations and providing legal aid on Human Rights cases. I have also expanded my knowledge on the African Human Rights mechanisms which has been quite beneficial to me when giving lectures for law school students and trainings of female lawyers and other CSOs. In addition to that, the knowledge gained has given me more confidence in engaging with the African Court and African Commission. It is my humble request that this training should continue each year and more lawyers especially female lawyers should be encouraged to participate.”

Sophia Ebby, Coordinator, African Court Coalition while noting the benefit of the trainings also stated the following:

“Through these trainings, we have been able to not only enhance knowledge of legal practitioners and CSOs, but to also increase visibility of the African Court (and the Coalition) and encourage more engagement with the Court among legal practitioners and CSOs across Africa (Anglophone, Lusophone and Francophone). We are grateful to RWI and SIDA for their continuous technical and financial support that enables organisation of these trainings.”

RWI and the partners of the Regional Africa Programme are committed to continue using litigation as a tool for enhancing access to justice. In 2022, there are plans for partners to convene joint litigation activities and maximise on the impact of litigation in the continent. While doing this, RWI and its partners remain cognisant that litigation cannot and should not be a single intervention for promoting human rights in Africa but should instead complement other efforts, such as advocacy mechanisms, in the continent.

The Raoul Wallenberg Institute’s Regional Africa Programme is financially supported by Swedish Development Cooperation with an overall objective to enhance access to justice and implementation of human rights commitments in Africa. This objective is framed by the premise that the key challenge for increased respect for human rights regionally is not primarily a lack of standards and institutions, but making existing standards and institutions work.

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