From 21 to 23 April 2022, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABAROLI) East Africa Programme, in collaboration with the Southern African Chief Justices Forum (SACJF), the Media Institute of Southern Africa, Africa Judges & Jurists Forum, Advancing Rights in Southern Africa and ICJ Kenya, held a regional symposium of Chief Justices in Nairobi Kenya, to discuss digital transformation of judiciaries and the critical role of the judiciary in protecting human rights online in East and Southern Africa.
Participants in the symposium noted that, in recent years, Africa had experienced an increased incidence of shutdowns and other restrictions on access to the internet, including in Ethiopia, Eswatini, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Such restrictions tended to be imposed during or ahead of major political events such as elections or mass protests. Both the United Nations Human Rights Council and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights have expressed concern at this growing trend of government-mandated restrictions against human rights and fundamental freedoms online.
Twelve Chief Justices and eight other judges attended the symposium, along with various legal experts and human rights practitioners who were speakers at the symposium. Each Chief Justice gave an account of the progress made in digitizing the provision of court services in their jurisdictions, and were asked to explain the measures that have been put in place to ensure that fair trial rights, including the protection of lawyer-client confidentiality, are fully protected, especially during virtual hearings. Most of the Chief Justices indicated that they had employed digital security experts to assist with measures to protect the confidentiality of certain deliberations during hearings. Participants called on them to implement measures to ensure that those who presently do not have access to the internet are not excluded from accessing justice or disadvantaged in any way as a result of the digitization of court services.
Participants expressed concerned at the impact of internet shutdowns on human rights and civic space, the role of the judiciary in protecting internet freedoms, applicable regional and universal standards, and trends in African jurisprudence on the protection of human rights online.
“Freedom of expression and the right of access to information, which are part of internet freedoms, are critical rights without which democracy cannot survive, and without which other human rights such as the right to health care and the right to education cannot be protected,” said the Chief Justice of Namibia, Hon. Peter Shivute, who is also the Chair of SACJF.
Delegates underscored that while human rights, including online, may in some instances be subject to limitations, any such restrictions must comply with the principle of legality, non-discrimination, necessity, and proportionality.
In closing remarks, Chief Justice Shivute, expressed the commitment of SACJF member jurisdictions to protect and advance human rights, including online. He urged collaborating partners of SACJF to support similar initiatives in order to strengthen the capacities of judiciaries to protect human rights and facilitate the cross-jurisdictional exchange of information on these issues.
The 12 Chief Justices in attendance were:
Hon. Martha Koome (Kenya)
Hon. Rizine R. Mzikamanda (Malawi)
Hon. Ronny Govinden (Seychelles)
Hon. Bheki Maphalala (Eswatini)
Hon. Peter Shivute (Namibia)
Hon. (Prof.) Ibrahim Hamis Juma (Tanzania)
Hon. Adelino Manuel Muchanga (Mozambique)
Hon. Terence Rannowane (Botswana)
Hon. Luke Malaba (Zimbabwe)
Hon. (Dr.) Mumba Malila (Zambia)
Hon. Philomena Mbete Mwilu (Deputy Chief Justice, Kenya)
Hon. Khamis Ramadhan Abdalla Ramadhan (Acting CJ, Zanzibar)