Landmark Inter-State Dispute Filed with the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights

by | Feb 7, 2024

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About Kiara Van Hout

Kiara van Hout is reading the Bachelor of Civil Law at Merton College, University of Oxford. She previously studied at St John's College, University of Cambridge, and was awarded the Jacovides Prize in International Law.

The African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights has received its first inter-state application. This is a milestone for the contentious jurisdiction of the African Court, and the latest episode in a protracted legal battle between these State parties.

On 21 August 2023, the African Court received an application from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) against the Republic of Rwanda. No material is available to the public at present. It is unclear, for instance, whether the DRC relies on its personal jurisdiction under Article 5(1)(b) of the Protocol on the Establishment of an African Court on Human and People’s Rights (which confers personal jurisdiction on a State Party which has lodged a complaint to the Commission) and/or Article 5(1)(d) (which confers personal jurisdiction on a State Party whose citizen is a victim of human rights violation).

This blog takes the opportunity to revisit the dispute between the DRC and Rwanda, which concerns alleged human rights violations in the context of the Second Congo War. For over two decades, the DRC has attempted to litigate this human rights dispute in international fora.

Proceedings before the African Commission

On 3 March 1999, the DRC filed a communication with the African Commission of Human and Peoples’ Rights against Rwanda (in addition to Burundi and Uganda). This was the first inter-state communication filed with the African Commission.

The DRC alleged violations of human rights committed by the armed forces of these State Parties in Congolese territory since August 1998 [2]. It claimed violations of a large share of the human rights set out in Part I of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights [8]. Rwanda denied these allegations and justified the presence of its troops in Congolese territory on grounds of national security, further alleging that the Congolese government was assisting groups hostile to Rwanda [22]. Moreover, Rwanda refused to take part in the proceedings beyond the admissibility stage [97].

The African Commission handed down its decision in May 2003. Due to the non-participation of Rwanda in the proceedings, it was treated as having admitted the allegations against it [97]. Frans Viljoen has noted that the non-participation of Rwanda hampered the ability of the African Commission to authoritatively ascertain the facts (see also his contribution to the conference on inter-state cases).

Proceedings before the International Court of Justice

On 28 May 2002, the DRC filed an application against Rwanda with the International Court of Justice (ICJ), claiming violations of various human rights instruments. By a judgment dated 3 February 2006, the ICJ held that it lacked jurisdiction to consider the merits [128]. In respect of each instrument, Rwanda was either not a party (as with the Convention Against Torture) or had made reservations excluding the ICJ’s jurisdiction (as with the Genocide Convention). Moreover, the ICJ argued that certain preconditions, such as the attempt to settle disputes by agreement, had not been met (as with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women).

Looking ahead

Inter-state disputes are uncommon in the African human rights system. Only three inter-state communications have been received by the African Commission, of which this dispute is the first. The dispute is once again a milestone as the first inter-state proceeding before the African Court.

The application will undoubtedly be met with strong resistance from Rwanda for at least three reasons. First, its non-participation in the African Commission proceedings signals its attitude towards litigation of the dispute. Secondly, Rwanda already has a strained relationship with the African Court (see Daly and Wiebusch): in 2016, in response to an individual complaint filed by opposition politician lngabire Victoire Umuhoza, Rwanda withdrew its declaration under Article 34(6) of the Protocol which permitted individuals and non-government organisations to file complaints with the African Court. Thirdly, diplomatic relations between the DRC and Rwanda are currently volatile due to the resurgence of the March 23 Movement in 2022 (a rebel military group supported by Rwanda, according to a June 2023 report of the United Nations Group of Experts on the DRC). Rwanda for its part is rankled by the DRC’s support of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, a military group founded by ethnic Hutu soldiers and militiamen in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide (likewise found to be substantiated, per the June 2023 report of the Group of Experts). These patterns of violence in the Great Lakes region demonstrate that this dispute, albeit decades old, is not confined to history.

Those interested in following the dispute can do so via the African Court’s public dashboard.

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