The fight to save the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Tribunal is far from over. Indeed, the campaign to resurrect the regional court has just received a major boost with the African Commission on Human and People's Rights (ACHPR) agreeing to hear a formal complaint about the decision by SADC leaders to suspend the Tribunal in August.
In a landmark decision, the Commission ruled this week that the complaint lodged with it on behalf of Zimbabwean farmers Luke Tembani and Ben Freeth against SADC leaders 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 by SADC leaders following a series of rulings against the Zimbabwe government. Instead of taking action against Zimbabwe, SADC leaders voted instead to support President Robert Mugabe, opting instead to suspend the court in 2010 for a review of its mandate. Two years later, they conspired to wreck it by deciding to remove its human rights mandate and individual access to it. But now there unlawful and indefensible actions will be put under the international spotlight.
All 15 SADC leaders have been cited as respondents in the case. 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.
Interviewed on SW Radio Africa, Freeth welcomed the 'courageous' decision and said, "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 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, adding that the Commission has "realised that what has happened is very serious not only for Southern Africa, but the whole of Africa."
The Commission's decision represents a real boost for the campaign to save the Tribunal, which has been led by a number of regional legal bodies, including the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC), the SADC Lawyers Association and the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ).