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Southern African Judges Slam Regional Court Closure

  • Peta Thornycroft

President of the SADC [Southern African Development Community] tribunal Ariranga Pillay looks on during the closing ceremony of the 30th SADC summit, in Windhoek, Namibi, August 17, 2010 (file photo)

President of the SADC [Southern African Development Community] tribunal Ariranga Pillay looks on during the closing ceremony of the 30th SADC summit, in Windhoek, Namibi, August 17, 2010 (file photo)

Judge Ariranga Pillay, the former president of the Southern African Development Community’s [SADC] tribunal and three of his fellow judges are protesting what they say is the illegal dissolution of this regional court of last resort.

The former tribunal judges note that among the court’s rulings were significant judgements against Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe's land policies.

Pillay is a former chief justice of Mauritius. He and his colleagues on the SADC tribunal say the tribunal has been dissolved and they have been unfairly dismissed.

The SADC tribunal’s first ruling in 2008, in Windhoek, found that a group of white farmers evicted from their land since 2000 were victims of racial discrimination. The tribunal also ruled that the expulsions of white farmers should end and those who already had been evicted should be compensated.

Zimbabwe ignored the ruling and its highest court claimed the SADC Tribunal did not have jurisdiction in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe then moved for a review of the SADC tribunal’s responsibilities.

At a summit in Windhoek in May, South African President Jacob Zuma, who is SADC’s mediator on Zimbabwe’s ongoing political crisis, was unable to attend. The summit then dissolved the tribunal and ended the contracts of Judge Pillay and three of his colleagues.

The outcome was applauded by Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and his colleagues in ZANU-PF party.

Lawyer Lloyd Kuveya, who leads a regional legal advocacy program in Johannesburg, said the dissolution of the tribunal came as a shock.

“South Africa wasn’t there, and with hindsight a lot of people are saying had South Africa been there, perhaps Zimbabwe’s very strong views against the tribunal might not have carried the day.”

He said President Jacob Zuma, as SADC mediator on Zimbabwe, had shown up recently at two SADC summits, in March and on June 11, and was determined that Zimbabwe’s next elections would be free and fair.

“Zuma seems to be taking very strong positions, really holding Mugabe accountable and putting him in check, and asking him to follow SADC principles on elections on human rights, rule of law,” said Kuveya.

Kuveya said he and many colleagues were surprised at the consensus within SADC to dissolve the Tribunal.

“So the countries that really surprised us in supporting Zimbabwe are Namibia and Botswana because when you look at the democratic credentials of SADC countries, Namibia and Botswana really come out at the top,” said Kuveya.

SADC has committed to establishing a new tribunal late next year after the treaty that established the first one is amended. The court was originally set up for citizens of member states who exhausted legal remedies in the courts in their countries.

Pillay maintains dissolution of the Tribunal was illegal. In his statement this week to the SADC secretariat, he said that although the tribunal is now “defunct,” its decision on Zimbabwe’s farmers is not.

He said dissolution of the tribunal sent "the worst possible signal to potential investors, donors and the international community that the highest authorities of SADC only pay lip service to human rights, democracy and the rule of law."

Pillay also has told the secretariat that he and his three colleagues seek compensation for what he said was the “high handed and imperious manner” in which their employment was terminated.