In defence of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre
- Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh
- 25 Jun 2015 08:40 (South Africa)
The President Omar al-Bashir debacle has led to a new debate on whether South Africa and other African states should withdraw from the Rome Statute. This debate, while topical, should not detract from the state’s patently unlawful action, which should remain our focus. Their argument that these actions amounted to political expediency do not justify their failure to comply with South African laws.
The Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) initiated the proceedings to have al-Bashir arrested for the grave crimes of which he stands accused, to ensure that South African authorities upheld their obligations under South African domestic law. SALC has received much praise for its actions and also much criticism for taking this bold step. In particular, SALC has heard some extremely concerning statements about its independence, including allegations that it is being influenced to act by third parties. We are concerned about these ongoing and unsubstantiated statements.
We are also troubled by statements alleging it is our litigation strategy to routinely bribe and target vulnerable judges, lawyers and prosecutors. These statements are defamatory, unsubstantiated and simply untrue. SALC’s case selection is guided by our mandate as well as consultations with our partners in the region.
What is SALC’s mandate and how do we work within this mandate?
SALC is an independent regional human rights organisation, based in Johannesburg but with projects throughout Southern Africa. SALC was established in 2005 to promote human rights and strengthen the rule of law. SALC makes an effort to ensure its work is sustainable and this necessitates fundraising. A full list of donors is displayed in publically available annual reports. SALC is governed by an independent board of trustees and its finances have received unqualified audits annually.
SALC aims to use public interest litigation in domestic courts within Southern Africa to realise and advance the rights of marginalised and vulnerable groups and to strengthen the rule of law. It’s our goal to increase public awareness within Southern Africa of the potential and importance of litigation and legal systems in vindicating human rights. SALC’s goal is to work with local partners to strategise and support the quality of arguments made before domestic courts, to ensure rigorous research and applicable authority support such arguments. In so doing we aim to realise authoritative court judgments so establishing strong legal precedents that uphold human rights and the rule of law.
SALC works in the following thematic areas:
rights of women (in particular sexual and reproductive health and women’s land and property issues); rights of persons and communities affected by HIV/Aids;
rights of LBGTI persons, sex workers and sexual minorities;
prisoner’s rights, rights of persons with disabilities;
freedom of expression rights;
international criminal justice and access to justice.
SALC also has a regional advocacy programme, ensuring that thematic issues litigated at the domestic level are also profiled at the regional level – before the African Union, for example.
Our mandate is to support the rule of law and although no external parties dictated our intervening in the Bashir case, we were motivated to act by the gross violations suffered by the Sudanese victims.
Disturbing threats about the crackdown and probe into South African civil society
SALC takes these threats about probes into itself and other NGOs very seriously. At a very basic level the role of civil society is to limit and control the power of a state. We believe in the value of an independent and robust civil society. In South Africa we are at a crucial crossroads. Thus it is essential for civil society organisations to hold this government to account to ensure that the state does not compromise itself and the integrity of the country. SALC has no intention to attack government policy through the courts. SALC approached the courts on the al-Bashir matter having tried other non-litigious methods, including writing to the government in advance of the AU Summit highlighting the implications of al-Bashir’s visit.
If these threats are true it speaks to the increasing intimidation and aggression directed at civil society by government. And while SALC protests the scaremongering and intimidation that probes of this sort are intended to produce, it has nothing to fear from any fair-minded inquiry and invites anyone with genuine reason to believe that its motives and work are anything less than independent to disclose those reasons.
We will not be deterred by smear campaigns and will not be responding further to individual criticisms or unfounded allegations that try to discredit SALC and our independence. There has been much support for SALC and its actions in pursuing the application to have al-Bashir arrested. We are deeply appreciative and take courage in this support. DM
Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh is the executive director of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre.