Tanzanian High Court condemns unlawful stripping of SADC Tribunal’s powers rendering the rule of law a “pipe dream”

The ICJ welcomes the recent judgment of the Tanzanian High Court condemning the Tanzanian government’s actions leading to the suspension of the SADC Tribunal and the denuding of its crucial role in maintaining the rule of law and protecting human rights in the Southern African region.

Following on a decision of the South African Constitutional Court in December 2018, the decision brings increased scrutiny to the legality and legitimacy of the decision of the SADC Summit to effectively disband the SADC Tribunal in 2010 and thereby “eviscerate the possibility of the States ever being held to account for perceived human rights violations, non-adherence to the rule of law or undemocratic practices”.

“The Tanzanian court’s decision once again raises fundamental questions about the legality and legitimacy of the SADC Summit’s attempt to strip the SADC Tribunal of its powers, following on decisions relating to land reform in Zimbabwe that upset leaders of SADC states. The ICJ endorses the views of the Tanzanian and South African courts that all decisions taken by SADC States must comply with the SADC Treaty, the right of victims of human rights abuses to access justice and the rule of law,” said Arnold Tsunga, the ICJ’s Africa Director.

The Tanzanian Court’s decision is premised on the finding that the SADC Treaty is, in terms of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, binding on all SADC member States and obligations in terms of it must be performed in good faith by all executive officials.

Having set up and empowered the SADC Tribunal to adjudicate disputes in terms of the Treaty, the Court held that “State parties including Tanzania are obliged to give effect to the Tribunal, without which the existence of the Community itself remains doubtful”.

The Court likened the system of governance set out in the Treaty to a domestic doctrine of separation of powers, noting that the Tribunal is part of an intricate set of checks and balances set out in the Treaty.

The case was brought to Court by the Tanganyika Law Society in order to hold the Tanzanian government accountable to the Constitution, the SADC Treaty and “other international law human rights norms”.

The Law Society alleged that the Tanzanian government’s actions violate the right to access to justice and are therefore “inimical to the rule of law”.

The Court’s decision makes repeated reference to international human rights law norms including United Nations Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the African Charter concluding that crucial commitments in terms of the standards set out in these documents were violated by the Tanzanian government.

The Court reasoned that in terms of international law the State is obliged to “ensure observance of [international human rights law principles] in the conduct of its international relations”.

This, crucially, meant that State parties to the SADC Treaty must, in their conduct pertaining to international relations “ensure protection of fundamental human rights of the individual” (emphasis in original).

The SADC Summit’s attempts to protect individuals from accessing the SADC Tribunal for the purposes of vindicating their rights therefore amounted to an unlawful encroachment on individuals’ rights in terms of domestic and international human rights law.

“The Court’s decision is a strong endorsement of the universality of international human rights principles as well as the need for strong checks and balances on power in all domestic, regional and international platforms established to ensure access to remedies for rights violations. The ICJ encourages the SADC leaders to individually and collectively take note of the decisions of the Tanzanian and South African courts and take immediate action to ensure full and effective operation of an independent SADC Tribunal capable of receiving and adjudicating individual complaints,” Tsunga added.


Arnold Tsunga, ICJ Africa Director, t: +263777283249 ; e: arnold.tsunga(a)icj.org

Timothy Fish Hodgson, ICJ Legal Adviser, t: +27828719905 ; e: timothy.hodgson(a)icj.org


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