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24 March 2017 10:07 (South Africa)
Opinionista Pierre de Vos

Rule of law: Democracy snuffed out by arbitrary decisions made in self-interest

  • Pierre de Vos
    Pierre de vos
    Pierre de Vos

    Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.

The attempts by the government to grant immunity from arrest and prosecution to al-Bashir were amateurish and legally misguided. They also raise important questions about the quality of legal advice provided to the government and about the threat the exercise of arbitrary power poses to our democracy.

In a postscript to his magisterial book Whigs and Hunters the Marxist historian EP Thompson called the rule of law “an unqualified human good”. Although highly critical of “the shams and inequities which may be concealed beneath this law”, he nevertheless argued fervently for the protection of the rule of law. In its absence, he said, those who exercise public power do so arbitrarily, unguided by the discipline and constraints that an adherence to the law brings.

When public power is exercised arbitrarily, it becomes impossible for those who do not wield state power to participate in politics in any meaningful way. Any semblance of democracy is snuffed out by those who make arbitrary decisions based purely on their own (instead of the common) interest – often in order to cement their power and to silence criticism and dissent.

The judgment of the Gauteng High Court in The Southern Africa Litigation Centre v the Minister of Justice and Others provides support for this argument.

At the heart of the judgment stands section 231 of the South African Constitution. The section states that “[a]n international agreement binds the Republic only after it has been approved by resolution in both the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces”, unless it is an agreement of a technical, administrative or executive nature. Section 231(4) further states that “[a]ny international agreement becomes law in the Republic when it is enacted into law by national legislation”.

What the judgment illustrates is that the lawyers advising our government (in this case the chief state law adviser) either did not know or understand these provisions, or our government chose to ignore them and to exercise its power arbitrarily.

It is common cause that South Africa duly ratified the Rome Statute that creates the International Criminal Court (ICC) and that this was approved by the democratically elected legislature. It is also common cause that the Rome Statute became law in South Africa in terms of section 231(4) of the Constitution after our democratic Parliament adopted the Implementation of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court Act in 2002 (Implementation Act).

It is furthermore common cause that the relevant African Union Conventions and the agreement between the African Union (AU) and South Africa to host the AU Summit were never made legally binding law in South Africa in terms of section 231(4) of the Constitution. (Informed observers may well ask why our government deemed the former agreement important enough to domesticate, but the latter not, and wonder what it says about our government’s purported commitment to African Union.)

The Rome Statute devises a system of international criminal justice wherein the primary responsibility for the investigation and prosecution of those most responsible for serious violations of international law rests with the courts in the country in which the crimes were committed. In principle, a matter will only be admissible before the ICC where a state is either unable or unwilling to investigate and prosecute torture, genocide and other crimes against humanity. Once a matter is referred to the ICC though (either by a state itself or by the UN Security Council) the ICC gains jurisdiction over the prosecution.

The ICC may at this stage request a state to arrest and surrender a suspect. Article 89(1) of the Rome Statute imposes a duty on a state to “comply with requests for arrest and surrender”.

In terms of the Implementation Act adopted by Parliament, South African authorities are enjoined to co-operate with the ICC, for example, to effect the arrest and provisional arrest of persons suspected of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. These crimes have been specifically created in the South African context in terms of section 4 of the Implementation Act.

The question that arose in this case was whether the government had the requisite legal authority nevertheless to grant immunity to a sitting head of state attending an AU Summit on our soil, despite these clear international law obligations and obligations imposed by South Africa’s own law.

The South African government argued that the host agreement between the AU and South Africa provided for the granting of privileges and immunities and thus empowered the South African government to ignore its international law and domestic legal obligations. Clause 1 of Article VIII of this agreement records that the Republic of South Africa shall accord the Members of the AU Commission and staff members, the delegates and other representatives of inter-governmental organisations attending the meetings certain privileges and immunities. Tellingly, it does not refer to heads of state attending the Summit.

The government also referred to section C, Article V (1) (a) and (g) of the OAU Convention (which was not domesticated into South African law), which states that “[r]epresentatives of Member States to the principal and subsidiary institutions, as well as to the Specialised Commission of the Organisation of African Unity [now AU], and to conferences convened by the Organisation, shall, while exercising their functions and during their travel to and from the place of meetings, be accorded the following privileges and immunities”. This includes immunity from personal arrest or detention.

In order to do so, the government argued, it published a notice in the Government Gazette in terms of section 5(3) of the Diplomatic Immunities and Privileges Act 37 of 2001 to grant foreign heads of state the requisite immunities during the AU Summit. The High Court found that there were several legal problems with this argument.

First, the Immunities Act in terms of which the immunity was purportedly granted does not domesticate the General Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the OAU in accordance with section 231(4) of the Constitution. The OAU (now AU) Convention is therefore not binding law in South Africa, and the structures, staff and personnel of the AU consequently do not automatically enjoy privileges and immunity in South Africa.

Second, the hosting agreement between our government and the AU does not in fact confer immunity on heads of state – only on AU personnel and the like – and even if it did, it has not been made binding law in South Africa and therefore cannot trump our duly passed laws, including the Implementation Act.

Third, the notice gazetted by the minister purporting to grant immunity to heads of states in terms of section 5(3) of the Immunities Act, is not applicable as section 5(3) only deals with the conferral of immunity and privileges on an organisation, which is defined in s. 1 of the Immunities Act as “an inter-governmental organisation of which two or more states or governments are members and which the minister has recognised for the purposes of this Act”.

It does not deal with, or confer a power to grant immunity on, a head of state, envoy or other representative. It follows that the June agreement also does not confer immunity on al-Bashir, and cannot serve to exclude this court’s jurisdiction.

The high-water mark of the government’s case was that the Immunities Act confers a general discretion on the minister to grant immunities and privileges on persons of her choosing, which she did by gazetting a notice to this effect granting immunity to all heads of state.

However, the court rejected this argument, stating, “she must exercise that discretion lawfully, in accordance with South Africa’s domestic and international law obligations. She cannot lawfully exercise the discretion where the effect will be to prevent the arrest and surrender of a person subject to an ICC warrant and request for surrender”.

In other words, where a law grants discretion to a minister, it does not grant discretion to that minister to break the law while exercising the discretion. The court did not explicitly say so, but another reason why the minister’s discretion in this regard is circumscribed is that it would be in breach of the separation of powers doctrine to grant a minister the effective power to amend legislation (in this case the Implementation Act), which was duly passed by the national legislature. To hold otherwise would be to grant the minister – a member of the executive – the power to amend duly passed legislation. But legislation can only be amended by the legislature.

If any provision of the Immunities Act did indeed grant such a sweeping power to the minister to amend the Implementation Act and to grant immunity to a head of state in contravention of the Implementation Act, the provision would therefore be unconstitutional. The Constitutional Court already held as much way back in 1995 in the Executive Council of the Western Cape Legislature and Others v President of the Republic of South Africa and Others.

Lastly, even if one ignores section 231(4) of our Constitution, which requires that agreements between South Africa and the AU or any other AU Convention only becomes enforceable law in South Africa if domesticated by our Parliament, it runs up against UN Security Council Resolution 1593 (2005) as well articles 25 and 103 of the UN Charter. In essence these require members of the UN to accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council. Furthermore, it affirms that in the event of a conflict in the obligations of members of the UN under the UN Charter and their obligations under any other international agreement their obligations under the Charter would prevail.

One could, of course, ask serious questions about the South African government’s lack of commitment to the AU and the various agreements entered into by South Africa under the AU’s auspices. Why were none of these agreements made binding law in South Africa in terms of section 231(4)? Does this mean our government does not take its commitments to the African Union seriously? Was it careless or incompetent in not doing so? Or did it deliberately and consciously decide to give domestic pre-eminence to the UN and to international agreements like the Rome Statute, perhaps in a bid to impress Western powers?

Those who have expressed anger at the South African judiciary for attempting to uphold the rule of law, to demonstrate appropriate respect for our domestic legislature and for enforcing the laws actually passed by our legislature, may well redirect their anger towards our government who has not shown a burning commitment to make agreements entered into under the auspices of the AU biding in South Africa.

It may also direct some opprobrium at the state’s legal advisors who may have demonstrated a tenuous grasp of South Africa’s international law commitments. The failure to foresee the legal problems presented by our government not domesticating AU agreements but doing so with the Rome Statute has caused our government substantial reputational damage on the continent and across the rest of the world.

It has also placed our government in a position where it apparently decided to flout the very laws our democratic Parliament adopted and the court orders issued in terms of these laws, thus acting in an arbitrary manner and eroding respect for the rule of law. As the High Court warned, “A democratic State based on the rule of law cannot exist or function, if the government ignores its constitutional obligations and fails to abide by Court orders. A Court is the guardian of justice, the corner-stone of a democratic system based on the rule of law. If the State, an organ of State or State official does not abide by Court orders, the democratic edifice will crumble stone-by-stone until it collapses and chaos ensues.”

The South African Constitutional Court has confirmed that principles of the rule of law are indispensable cornerstones of our constitutional democracy. As the High Court remarked, “The emphasis must be on ‘indispensible’. Where the rule of law is undermined by government it is often done gradually and surreptitiously. Where this occurs in Court proceedings, the Court must fearlessly address this through its judgments, and not hesitate to keep the executive within the law, failing which it would not have complied with its constitutional obligations to administer justice to all persons alike without fear, favour or prejudice.”

Thoughtful political “realists” and hardened cynics may well argue that it would never be in South Africa’s regional interest to arrest the sitting head of state of a fellow African country – even if that head of state is accused of orchestrating the deaths of 300,000 Africans. This would be a strong argument for expecting the South African government to have indicated politely to al-Bashir that it would not be in his best interest to attend the AU Summit because our courts may order his arrest. It is, in other words, a strong argument in favour of informed, competent, pre-emptive action by our government to prevent the mess it created for itself.

What it is not and can never be, is a plausible argument in favour of the erosion of the rule of law – indeed an “unqualified human good” – through its bad planning, a cavalier disregard for laws passed by our democratic Parliament and enforced by our courts, and an indifference towards agreements concluded by our country under the auspices of the African Union. DM

  • Pierre de Vos
    Pierre de vos
    Pierre de Vos

    Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.

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