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A Human Rights Court for Africa

One crucial insight to be gained from a century of establishing international courts and tribunals is that while momentum is vital, getting things right from the start is equally important.

With little fanfare, January 25, 2004, marked a milestone in the history of the protection of human rights in Africa: the entry into force of the Protocol for establishing an African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights. After Europe and the Americas, Africa will be the third continent with a regional court to redress human rights violations.

Acceptance of the Protocol in the last year by such influential African countries as Algeria, South Africa, and Libya gave the final and sudden impetus to the Court's establishment, and the critical threshold of fifteen ratifications was reached shortly before the New Year, when the Comoros signed on. But it is in countries like Burundi, Côte d'Ivoire, Rwanda, and Uganda, which have all ratified the Protocol, that the Court will likely play a major role in checking human rights abuses.

It can do so because the Court's judgments will be legally binding and thus enforceable in national courts. In states that accepted the Court's jurisdiction, individuals will be able to gain access to the Court directly, even to file cases against their own governments. African NGO's will be able to ask the Court for advisory opinions, thus strengthening the effectiveness of the African human rights regime.