Two day joint retreat of Court and UNHCR opens in Lagos

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.

In an address on Wednesday, 10th November 2021 at the opening of 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 will 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 has so far received a total of 559 cases, from which 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 are unaware of the existence of the Court and are therefore 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 has 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 collaborates 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 are 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 practitionners play a critical role in thethe social change and their role to advance refugee protection cannot be disputed as the legal community has 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 many ECOWAS Member States have 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 in a progressive manner 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 Revived 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 will 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.

However, he noted that the Court has been faced with significant challenges in providing redress to persons of concern to UNHCR manifested in the noticeably low number of applications filed on asylum and statelessness related issues.

This he added, might be attributed to a variety of factors such as as the limited visibility of the Court in Member States;  the limited knowledge and awareness of the mandate of the Court; the lack of jurisprudence on international refugee law and Human Rights Law as well as barriers to access to justice.

“That is the reason why I find this retreat timely, for it offers opportunity to explore ways to broaden cooperation by identifying new areas of engagement, based on mutual interest and consequently provide protection for the rights of persons of concern, and contribute to addressing the root causes of forced displacement, while upholding the rule of law,” he said.

The senior official of the UNHCR said that by continuing to work with the Court, the agency hopes to reinvigorate a mutually beneficial collaboration that allows them to better address the rights of refugees, including asylum seekers, returnees, IDPs, stateless persons and those at risk of statelessness as well as collaborate in ensuring the proper interpretation and application of relevant international and national laws.

Against the backdrop of the conflicts and violence in the region that has forced millions of people to flee their homes, he said that “it is imperative that we broaden our search for solutions that enable refugees, internally displaced persons and stateless persons to lead productive and meaningful lives and participate as full members of their communities wherever they are located.”

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 in order to build a more operational and efficient partnership.

It will also agree 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.