Building capacity to help Africa trade better

Does it matter whether SADC has a Tribunal?


Does it matter whether SADC has a Tribunal?

Gerhard Erasmus, tralac Associate, discusses the ongoing suspension of the SADC Tribunal and the implications this has had for the region

In 2010 the SADC Summit decided to “suspend” the SADC Tribunal. The result is that since that time no state or private party entitled to standing before this forum can bring an application for the enforcement of rights provided for in any of the SADC legal instruments. This does not seem to bother the member states; they do in any case not litigate against each other. However, firms (which are the actual traders), service providers, business people and investors are in clear need for the protection of their rights. So are individuals employed by SADC institutions.

What exactly “suspension” means is unclear. The SADC Treaty does not provide for any such action; meaning that the Summit decision of 2010 is ultra vires. However, this decision is beyond review.[1] The Summit is the highest decision-making body and takes its decisions on the basis of consensus.

The reason for the suspension of the Tribunal and the instruction to “revisit” its jurisdiction relate to the 2009 landmark judgment in which the Tribunal ruled against Zimbabwe for human rights violations. Zimbabwe refused to respect that judgment and the Tribunal had to refer the matter to the Summit for implementation; as required under its Protocol. What followed demonstrated a serious design flaw in SADC’s dispute settlement system. Ultimately SADC member states are judges in their own cases. Since they take decisions on the basis of consensus it means a guilty state party can always veto judgments against it. Under this type of arrangement the member states are above the law. An effective dispute settlement system will require a solution such as the reversed consensus rule of the WTO; panel and Appellate Body rulings are adopted unless there is consensus not to adopt them.

The decision by the SADC member states to suspend the Tribunal shows that they have also grabbed another power – to abolish courts which find them guilty of violating the agreements to which they have agreed and which they have ratified.

In the meantime the implementation of the SADC FTA (which is premised on objective rules such as the elimination of tariffs and non-tariff barriers) is directly affected. The system cannot function as originally planned. At the moment there are serious unresolved legal issues as a result of “surcharges” and new duties imposed on mainly South African goods imported into Zimbabwe and Tanzania. These measures are prima facie unlawful under Articles 3 and 4 of the SADC Trade Protocol but cannot be ruled upon by an independent judicial forum. National courts do not have jurisdiction over foreign governments in these cases. Panels might be a possibility[2] but have never been convened.

What are the implications of this lingering uncertainty? The long term consequences for investment, development and respect for the rule of law will be negative; while the benefits of freer trade and the certainty of a rules-based system will be undermined. Trade in SADC apparently takes place on the basis of discretions and ad hoc policy responses.

A binding international legal instrument is at stake here. The SADC Trade Protocol has entered into force and is binding on all Parties thereto.[3] This arrangement also has to respect the applicable multilateral rules of the WTO. At present certain members are clearly in breach of their obligations but can apparently do so with impunity. It is ironic that at the same time all of them participate in negotiations on the establishment of a new Tripartite FTA among the members of SADC, COMESA and the EAC. Will their behaviour under a new FTA be of the same order?

What benefits does adjudication have? The judicial process allows for clarification of all facts, the interpretation of the applicable legal texts and the setting of precedents. Rulings will guide future behaviour. In short – it brings certainty and predictability. Judgements normally contain a detailed factual investigation, including a study of applicable documents, derogations and exceptions invoked by the Parties. The ultimate objective is to ensure respect for the applicable law and the implementation of the obligations of the Parties. If it is clear that the measure under investigation is invalid and cannot be justified by the exceptions provided for, the only logical outcome will be a finding to that effect and a decision about the consequences. Such a finding also adds to the development of the law and practice (the acquis) of the organization in question. Decisions should be disseminated.

The implications of a finding about invalidity of a particular state measure should be explained. In international trade law the standard remedy is that the unlawful behaviour must at be discontinued. This must happen as soon as possible. This is also the approach adopted by the SADC Trade Protocol: The settlement of any dispute among Member States shall, whenever possible, imply removal of a measure not conforming with the provisions of this Protocol or causing mollification or impairment of such provision.[4] When direct and comprehensive responses are not possible, a negotiated settlement about concessions and acceptable measures between the parties to the dispute will follow.

Domestic trade measures by SADC Member State must be in line with the applicable law. If this basic principle is not vindicated an essential feature of SADC will be undermined. Actions by the Parties which regulate trade will then become unpredictable and discretionary. This is clearly not how SADC has been conceptualized. Article 6 of the Treaty deals with General Undertakings of Members and requires them to “undertake to adopt adequate measures to promote the achievement of the objectives of SADC, and shall refrain from taking any measure likely to jeopardise the sustenance of its principles, the achievement of its objectives and the implementation of the provisions of this Treaty”.

Formal dispute settlement promotes transparency and certainty. The private sector, firms, service providers, investors and consumers then know where they stand. Dispute settlement should not only be limited to those rare occasions (not yet seen in SADC) when direct inter-state interests may be involved. Governments do not trade. The ideal is that the governments of nationality of private parties affected by unlawful behaviour should take up their cases and litigate against such other state parties. This is what happens in practically all disputes decided by WTO Panels and the Appellate Body.

SADC governments never do this. Hopefully it will start to change – in the light of the glaring disrespect for the law which we now see. The first step is to restore respect for the rule of law in SADC by allowing formal dispute settlement. If the member states are concerned about their own human rights records, then separate that area of jurisdiction from the rest. The SADC FTA is in desperate need of a judicial arm and respect for its own law.


[1] Some private parties have since lodged complaints with the African Human Rights Commission. They will have a hearing regarding the judgments given in their favour by the SADC Tribunal in Windhoek, but which have not been implemented.

[2] They are mentioned in Article 32(4) of the Trade Protocol. Annex VI to the Trade Protocol has not entered into force.

[3] In terms of Art 22, SADC Treaty, SADC Protocols form an integral part of the SADC legal regime.

[4] Article 32(2) SADC Trade Protocol.


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