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Côte d'Ivoire withdraws from African Court on Human and People's Rights

Photo by Guillaume Colin and Pauline Penot of the 47th session of the African Court of Human and People's Rights on  Flickr via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

In a further rebuff to the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, after Benin's partial withdrawal, Côte d'Ivoire has decided to also withdraw its recognition. It is highly likely that this decision is linked to a court judgment in favor of an opponent of the Ivorian government.

The court was created under Article 1 of the associated Protocol of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (AfCHPR) which allows a citizen or organization direct access to the court.

he AfCHPR is part of an African continental convention under the aegis of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), with headquarters in Arusha, Tanzania.

The Guillaume Kigbafori Soro affair

On April 29, Ivorian government spokesperson, Sidi Touré, announced Côte d'Ivoire's decision to withdraw its June 9, 2013, Declaration of Competence from the AfCHPR.

This decision follows a judgment by the court against Côte d’Ivoire and in favor of its opponent in the case, Guillaume Kigbafori Soro, a former member of the government who is now critical of his country.

Former prime minister Soro had complained to the AfCHPR about a 20-year prison sentence and a fine of 4.5 billion West African CFA francs (about $7.5 million US dollars) for “covering up the misuse of public funds” and “money laundering.”

This sentence also required him to pay 2 billion CFA francs (about $3.3 million USD) in damages to the Public Treasury of Côte d’Ivoire. He was also to suffer five years’ suspension of his civil rights and the confiscation of his house. The Yamoussoukro (capital city) judiciary also issued an international arrest warrant against Kigbafori, who currently lives in France.

On April 22, the AfCHPR ordered the state defendant to suspend the arrest warrant it had issued against Soro. It also required Côte d’Ivoire to produce a report on the implementation of the provisional measures mandated in the verdict within 30 days of the date it was received.

Since the announcement of Côte d'Ivoire's withdrawal from the AfCHPR Protocol, human rights defense organizations have issued a stream of press releases and statements of protest against this decision.

Some of them see in the refusal of the authorities to comply with the AfCHPR's judgment a bid to stop Soro from standing in the presidential elections, set to take place in October 2020. The lawyers’ collective engaged with Soro's defense published a message on Facebook on April 30, saying:

Cette décision de retrait confirme, s’il en était encore besoin, que le jugement correctionnel du 28 avril 2020 rendu par le Tribunal de Première Instance d’Abidjan contre M. Guillaume Kigbafori Soro, en violation de la décision de la CADHP du 22 avril 2020, s’inscrit dans une série de manœuvres politiques afin d’écarter sa candidature à l’élection présidentielle, au prix d’une grave instrumentalisation de l’institution judiciaire.

This withdrawal decision confirms, were it still necessary to do so, that the criminal conviction of 28 April 2020 returned by the Abidjan Lower Court against Monsieur Guillaume Kigbafori Soro, in violation of the AfCHPR's decision of 22 April 2020, joins a series of political manoeuvres aimed at removing his candidature from the Presidential election, at the cost of a serious politicisation of the judiciary.

It seems the current Ivorian government is determined to put pressure on Guillaume Soro. Côte d'Ivoire journalist Djakaria Touré notes Soro's younger brother, an American national, was arrested in the context of another case:

Côte d'Ivoire: human rights violation.
SORO SIMON, political prisoner and prisoner of conscience, incarcerated in the Civil Prison of Abengourou.
Very sick, and his doctors prevented from attending to him.
Regime using him to blackmail his elder brother Guillaume Soro.

The president of Côte d'Ivoire, Alhassane Ouattara, has announced that at the end of his current term, which expires on October 31, he will follow the constitution, which limits the number of terms to two, and will give way to the winning candidate.

Alarming setback to democracy

In a press release issued on May 1, the Ivorian Human Rights Observatory (OIDH) expressed grave concern at this withdrawal months away from the presidential elections:

Cette décision de retrait, à quelques mois des échéances électorales de 2020, et au regard de la crispation du contexte socio-politique actuel, pourrait priver les citoyens de recours pourtant essentiels à la reconnaissance de leur droit.

Elle s’apparente ainsi à un recul démocratique pour notre pays qui se veut un parangon en matière de respect des droits humains et de l’état de droit en Afrique. Pour preuve, la Côte d’Ivoire a été membre du conseil des droits de l’homme de l’ONU de 2012 à 2016, membre du conseil de sécurité de l’ONU, puis postule encore à cette fonction au conseil des droits de l’homme.

This withdrawal decision, coming months away from the 2020 electoral deadline, and in the light of the ratcheting up of tension in the current socio-political context, could deprive citizens of opportunities which remain essential to the recognition of their rights.

It thus amounts to a democratic setback for our country which claims itself a paragon of respect for human rights and the state of law in Africa. As proof, Côte d’Ivoire was a member of the UN Human Rights Council from 2012 to 2016, has been a member of the UN Security Council, and is once more seeking the Human Rights Council role.

The Convention of Ivorian Civil Society (CSCI) judged:

…par ce retrait, le citoyen ivoirien et les Organisations de la société civile (OSC) se trouvent fortement fragilisées en matière de promotion et de protection des droits de l’homme dans notre pays. D’autant que cet instrument juridique chèrement acquis de haute lutte est le fruit d’un engagement collectif.

…by this withdrawal, the Ivorian citizen and civil society organisations (CSOs) find themselves greatly weakened in promoting and protecting human rights in our country. After all, this legal instrument, dearly won by hard struggle, is a fruit of collective endeavour.

Numerous Twitter users have published comments:

After Benin, now it's Côte d'Ivoire removing its citizens’ access to the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights. What a setback for human rights and justice ?!?
The intoxications of power mixed in with a shameful curbing of justice!

Stéphane Kipré, president of the political party Union of the New Generations, writes:

To renege on our commitment to the #AfCHPR because a ruling went against us is unworthy of a statesman. It's humiliating for our country, particularly when we've supported previous rulings. Côte d'Ivoire, get rid of this type of leader!

As user Cedric Emmanuel notes online:

IMPORTANT GOVERNMENT PRESS RELEASE – African Court: “Cote d'Ivoire has withdrawn its Declaration of Competence. The ruling in the Soro case violates the sovereignty of the State”. Briefing to the Council of Ministers, this Wednesday 29 April 2020.

The withdrawal decision was taken after the #AfCHPR ordered the suspension of the prosecution of @SOROKGUILLAUME so the State of 🇨🇮 should at least respect that judgment because it was, at the point it was taken, still a member of this COURT.

Pape Ibrahima Kane, a human rights activist working for the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA), draws an important conclusion:

… il faut savoir que cette décision-là ne prend effet que dans un an. Et donc que d’ici l’année prochaine, il peut toujours  y avoir des plaintes contre la Côte d’Ivoire…

Parce que, cette décision n’exclut pas la possibilité de toujours porter plainte contre la Côte d’Ivoire. Mais maintenant, quand on porte plainte contre la Côte d’Ivoire, ce sera devant la commission africaine et c’est la commission africaine qui portera l’affaire devant la cour.

…you have to realise that this decision only takes effect in a year's time. And therefore that between now and next year, there can still be complaints against Côte d’Ivoire…

Because this decision doesn't preclude people making complaints against Côte d’Ivoire. Only now, when someone does make a complaint against Côte d’Ivoire, it will be to the African Commission [on Human and Peoples’ Rights] and it will be the African Commission which will bring the case to court.

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