On the Road: African Court Sensitization Missions

News reaches us that the African Court will be conducting its latest sensitization mission to Guinea-Bissau next week (14-15 August 2017). With this in mind, I thought it would be a good opportunity to reflect on the objective of sensitization missions and their effectiveness.

According to the African Court, the main objective of sensitization missions are to enhance the protection of human rights in Africa. Specific objectives include raising public awareness about the African Court, encouraging the ratification of the African Court Protocol and the deposit of the Additional Declaration, sensitizing would-be applicants on how to access the African Court and encouraging the utilization of the African Court to render advisory opinions.

From what I can determine, since 2014 the African Court has conducted six such sensitization missions:

  1. Ethiopia (November 2014)
  2. Benin and Togo (May 2015) 
  3. Lesotho (July 2015)
  4. South Africa (October 2015)
  5. Chad (December 2015)
  6. Egypt and Tunisia (April 2017)

(somewhat strangely, I cannot find records of any sensitization missions in 2016?)

All these missions tend to follow a similar pattern, including meetings with senior politicians, judiciary and other important stakeholders. Missions also feature engagement with civil society in the form of workshops or seminars. Representation tends to be fairly small, often comprising three African Court judges plus registry staff.

On one hand, I think these visits can be seen as positive in and of themselves simply by taking the African Court out of Arusha and into AU member states. However, perhaps the biggest question is to their effectiveness. Put simply, given the financial cost and use of staff resources, are these visits making any difference? Well, if we take our six missions again and plug in the member states’ actions (or inactions) since their sensitization visit we see the following:

  1. Ethiopia (November 2014) No Change– Still not ratified the African Court Protocol
  2. Benin and Togo (May 2015) Benin: Change deposited Additional Declaration in February 2016; Togo: No Change– ratified African Court Protocol, yet to sign Additional Declaration
  3. Lesotho (July 2015)  No Change – ratified African Court Protocol, yet to sign Additional Declaration
  4. South Africa (October 2015) No Change– ratified African Court Protocol, yet to sign Additional Declaration
  5. Chad (December 2015) Change: Ratified African Court Protocol in January 2016, yet to sign Additional Declaration
  6. Egypt and Tunisia (April 2017) Egypt: No Change– Still not ratified the African Court Protocol; Tunisia: Change– Tunisia signed the Additional Declaration in April 2017

There are a number of caveats to this exercise. These results only document signatures and ratifications, and do not take into account behind the scenes negotiations that may contribute towards future ratifications and signatures. They also do not reflect member states’ prior intentions- for example a member state that was going to sign anyway. Still, looking at the results even with these caveats, it is hard to ignore that change occurred in three out of eight countries targeted.

I think the word “targeted” is important here. From my discussions with African Court officials and others, there is a sense that the African Court cannot and should not engage the entire continent at once. Simply put, the African Court has neither the staff or budget to roll out a continent wide campaign. Rather, utilising these sensitization missions allows the African Court to make an intentional sortie into a country or region. This foray then aims at building support and raising the African Court’s profile, whilst securing ratification and/or signature in a piecemeal fashion. Of course, with 55 African Union member states, this approach runs the risk taking a very long time to achieve its goal. But looking at the exercise above, the results are fairly positive. Lets hope this latest visit yields further change.

With this in mind, if you are planning to participate or be involved in the African Court’s Guinea-Bissau mission and would like to share your experience please contact me. I would be very interested to hear any news on how the trip was received, its effectiveness and lessons that could be learned – contact details can be found on the about us section of the website.

Thanks for reading!

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