The ECOWAS Court of Justice is in the process of creating a Legal Aid Fund that will facilitate access to justice by indigent victims of human rights abuses who could otherwise not afford legal representation in approaching the Court, a judge of the Court, Justice Dupe Atoki has said.
Opening a two-day joint retreat organised by the Court and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Lagos, the judge said that when established, the fund would be a ‘ milestone achievement for the ECOWAS region’ and contribute to improving access to the Court.
Justice Atoki, who led the delegation of the Court to the retreat, said the 20-year-old Court had so far received a total of 559 cases, from which it delivered 130 rulings and 301 judgments, most of which relate to the human rights mandate of the Court, which continues to receive more complaints daily.
Despite these laudable achievements, she said many ECOWAS citizens were unaware of the existence of the Court and unable to access the Court for the protection of their rights, which explains why the Court has put in place strategies to give visibility to the Court.
In this regard, Justice Atoki said the Court had intensified efforts to enhance awareness of its existence through its external Court sessions, the online publication of its judgments and in the Law Reports of the Court for dissemination within the and outside the region in addition to undertaking sensitization missions to Member States to raise awareness of key stakeholders about the work of the Court.
Additionally, she said the Court would collaborate with international organisations such as the UNHCR, with which it signed an initial Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in 2015, amongst others, to improve on the protection of human rights.
However, the judge said that like other victims of human rights violation, the lack of awareness was, amongst other factors, inhibiting refugees, migrant, internally displaced persons and stateless persons to petition the Court as it concerns the violation of these rights by Member States.
She added: ‘this accounts for the sad situation where the Court has not yet been seized of any complaint of violations affecting the rights of refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons, stateless persons and persons at risk of statelessness.”
In his remarks at the opening, the Deputy Director for Protection of the UNHCR, Mr Xavier Ceach said that judges, lawyers and other legal practitioners play a critical role in the social change and their role to advance refugee protection could not be disputed as the legal community had over the years been at the forefront of the refugee case law as well as legal and normative reform interpretation or court decisions.
Mr Ceach, who has responsibility for West and Central Africa, noted that the many ECOWAS Member States had initiated law reforms on asylum, drafting of legal and/normative framework on asylum, protection of Internally Displaced Persons or nationality law or civil documentation.
While acknowledging that the adoption of a new law or revisiting it progressively is not an absolute solution to all problems, the UNHCR official said that Court could contribute to the promotion of a regional asylum and solutions framework through the exercise of its advisory and contentious mandates.
He advised ECOWAS Member States to implement the 1993 Revised Treaty and all other subsidiary legal instruments that impact on the persons of interest to the UNHCR namely the Protocol on Free Movement and its supplementary Protocols.
It is through the implementation of these instruments, he added, that refugees and other persons of concern to UNHCR would be able to voice their plight, secure protection and support and find their way towards greater stability.
Mr Ceach described the ECOWAS Court as ‘an increasingly active and bold adjudicator of Human Rights,’ which since it acquired its human rights jurisdiction in 2005, has issued numerous decisions condemning Human Rights violations by its Member States.
The retreat, which is being attended by two judges of the Court and 18 other staff, will evaluate the UNHCR-ECCJ partnership to identify the gaps, challenges, and opportunities for improved synergies to build a more operational and efficient partnership.
It will also agree on ways to enhance the role of the ECOWAS Court in upholding the protection of the human rights of refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons, stateless persons and those at risk of statelessness in the region as well as identify new areas of engagement. Moreover, it will validate and adopt a four-year joint plan of action.
The retreat is being moderated by the Professor Tawfiq Ladan, the Director General of the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies.