By Alex Bell
15 January 2013
Two Zimbabwean farmers, who both had their farms seized under the land grab campaign, will make history this week when a legal challenge against the suspension of the regional human rights Tribunal is filed at the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights.
A comprehensive submission contesting the crippling of the Tribunal’s work will be filed with the African Commission by the farmers’ legal team this week. This follows the Commission’s ruling last November that the complaint lodged with it on behalf of farmers Luke Tembani and Ben Freeth, against SADC leaders for suspending the human rights Tribunal, was ‘admissible’.
The complaint by Tembani and Freeth was filed as part of the ongoing battle for the future of the Tribunal, which was suspended more than two years by SADC leaders over its rulings against the Zimbabwe government. The court had ruled that the land grab was unlawful, and then held Zimbabwe in contempt of court for refusing to honour its original ruling.
The court also held the government of Zimbabwe in breach of the SADC Treaty and other international legal obligations. But instead of taking action against Zimbabwe, SADC leaders suspended the court in 2010 for a review of its mandate. Two years later the court remains inactive. Regional justice ministers have proposed that the court only be reinstated with a very limited human rights mandate, which blocks individual access to the court.
14 SADC leaders have been cited as respondents in the landmark case launched by Tembani and Freeth, which was originally made to the SADC Tribunal in 2011, but will now be heard by the African Commission. It is the first time in legal history that a group of heads of state is being cited by an individual as the respondent in an application to an international body.
The Tribunal meanwhile has been deliberately hamstrung by SADC governments, who have agreed that the court will only be allowed to continue its work if individual access to the court is stopped. This means that the court cannot fulfil its chief mandate, which is to uphold the human rights of all SADC citizens.
Freeth told SW Radio Africa on Tuesday that the African Commission’s interest in the case is “exciting,” because the fight for the Tribunal will now be held on an international stage.
“We will now have this argued before the eyes of the world,” Freeth said.
He explained that the case is not just about farmers in Zimbabwe, but about fundamental human rights of the entire SADC region, rights that are being actively infringed on by the suspension of the court.
“This fight goes to the core of problems in Southern Africa. The region has huge potential for growth and development, but we are not moving forward. This case addresses the reasons for this,” Freeth said.
He added that the case will also shine a spotlight on the human rights situation in Zimbabwe ahead of elections, which he warned are likely to be “bloody.”
“This is going to be an extremely difficult year. Nothing has happened to stop what happened in previous elections from happening again,” he warned, adding that the case will highlight the need for a strong, independent human rights court.