The suspension of the Southern African region's human rights court is now set to be tackled at one of the highest levels in Africa, after the African Commission on Human and People's rights agreed to hear a formal complaint about the matter.
The African Commission ruled on Tuesday that the complaint lodged with it on behalf of Zimbabwean farmers Luke Tembani and Ben Freeth, against SADC leaders for suspending the regional human rights Tribunal, was 'admissible'. The ruling was made at the 52nd Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and People's Rights held in Cote d'Ivoire.
The complaint by Tembani and Freeth was filed as part of the ongoing battle for the future of the Tribunal, which was suspended 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.
All 15 SADC leaders have been cited as respondents in the landmark case launched by Tembani and Freeth, which was originally made to the SADC Tribunal last year but will now be heard by the African Commission.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.
Freeth told SW Radio Africa on Wednesday that the Commission's "courageous" decision is a "breakthrough."
"Never before have 15 governments been brought before a Commission of this nature and held accountable. The Commission agreed to hear our case on the basis that it (the Tribunal suspension) goes against the African Charter and against what Africa believes in terms of the rule of law. So we are very excited," Freeth said.
Freeth and Tembani's legal team now have 60 days to compile their arguments and make further submissions to the Commission. SADC will also be given a chance to respond, before a hearing expected sometime next year.
"The rule of law is so linked to development and the wellbeing of people. So what is happening in Southern Africa is severely retrogressive for the rule of law and human rights," Freeth said.
He added: "They (the Commission) have realised that what has happened is very serious not only for Southern Africa, but the whole of Africa. The credibility of African justice is in the reckoning."