A bad week for Tanzania as rights groups rally support for court

Saturday December 7 2019

By Khalifa Said ksaid@tz.nationmedia.com

Dar es Salaam. Tanzania has once again come under intense criticism this time over its attempt to block its citizens and non-governmental organisations from directly accessing the African court--one of the main organs of the African Union responsible for strengthening the human rights protection system in the continent.

The government has served the African Commission with a notice of its intention to withdraw its declaration made under article 34(6) of the Protocol of the African Charter on the Establishment of an African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights allowing individuals and NGOs to take cases directly to the Court after exhausting domestic judicial remedies.

A flurry of condemnations, complaints and calls for Tanzania to reconsider its decision has dominated the week in a yet what analysts see as another blot in Tanzania’s apparent deteriorating commitments to human rights and accountability.

The present criticism follows hot in the heels of last week’s censure over the manner in which the authorities mishandled the local government elections which forced the opposition parties to boycott and lend the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) a landslide victory of over 99 percent Conducted on November 24, the civic elections were faced with myriad irregularities that forced the United States and the United Kingdom embassies, among others, to question their credibility.

The censure on the mishandling of the civic elections itself came on the heels of scathing attacks from human rights organisations like the Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch on the deterioration of human rights situation in the country, with bodies like the African Commission expressing disappointment over what it said was Tanzania’s lack of commitment to independently investigate the incidents of serious human right abuse cases, such as reported disappearances of people and deaths.

On Tanzania’s decision to deny its citizens and NGOs direct access to the African Court, the University of Pretoria-based Centre for Human Rights has become the latest organisation to express its concerns over the decision, terming Tanzania’s decision for withdrawal “vague.”

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Defending its decision, Tanzania minister of foreign affairs Prof Palamagamba Kabudi indicated that the court went ahead to implement the declaration contrary to the reservations it made when depositing instruments for the protocol.

But lawyers and rights groups said the government was not being forthright as it has not shown how the court violated the demand that parties wishing to open cases in the court first exhaust all domestic legal remedies.

“Such vague grounds of withdrawal by the host state sets a negative precedent for other African countries,” said the Centre in its December 5 statement published on its website. “It is a setback to efforts made by the African Union towards ensuring a united Africa which protects and respects human rights and access to justice.”

The SA Centre for Human Rights, which combines academic excellence and effective activism to advance human rights referred to the African Court as a central institution in creating an effective regional accountability mechanism, playing a pivotal role in providing ‘African solutions to African problems’.

The body argues that no efforts be spared to ensure Tanzania did not withdraw as such a move would polarise states and further restrict access to remedy. It wants the African Union and other stakeholders “to use all diplomatic and other means to engage the government of Tanzania to reverse this decision.”

The United Nations Human Rights office which stepped in on Tuesday also feels the Court is crucial for justice and accountability to prevail in Tanzania as were scores of local activists who were caught by surprise by the decision which they have blamed on Prof Kabudi’s aggressive affront on the diplomatic front.

Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition (THRDC) and the Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC) pleaded with the government to initiate a participatory process with other stakeholders before a final decision on whether to withdraw or not is made.

“Withdrawing without involving other stakeholders has created uncertainty,” said THRDC’s national coordinator Mr Onesmo Olengurumwa at a joint press conference with the LHRC.

“This is because the government has not openly discussed the limits that it had set itself at the court and to what extent have the limits been surpassed.”

Friends of East Africa, East Africa Lawyers Association are among other commentators who weighed in on the matter as all eyes remain on whether the government will change its mind or not, and if it may want to deal with the pressure differently.