OPINION: The East African Court of Justice must play a more prominent role in resolving regional disputes

Lawyer Phionah Rwandarugali is a managing partner with Ssewagudde Kalema & Co. Advocates Kampala –Uganda (PHOTO/Courtesy)

Lawyer Phionah Rwandarugali is a managing partner with Ssewagudde Kalema & Co. Advocates Kampala –Uganda (PHOTO/Courtesy)

KAMPALA — The East African Court of Justice (EACJ) is the principle judicial organ of the East African Community (EAC), responsible for the application and interpretation of the EAC Treaty.

In line with Articles 27-30 of the Treaty, any partner state that considers another partner state or organ of a partner state not to have fulfilled its obligations or that may have violated any provision of the Treaty may approach the court for a decision. Likewise, any person who is a resident of the partner state may refer for determination to the court, the legality of any Act, regulation, directive, decision, or action of a partner state on grounds that such act is unlawful and infringes on the provision of the Treaty.

The regional court was inaugurated in 2001 and had its first case in 2005. Since then, it has dealt with many disputes referred to it by both partner states and EAC citizens alleging violation of the EAC Treaty.

When Rwanda closed its border with Uganda in 2019, Mr. Kalali Steven, a citizen and resident of Uganda felt aggrieved and rightly discerned that Rwanda’s actions were not consistent with its obligations under the Treaty as it restricted free movement of people and goods under the EAC common market. In reference No. 2 of 2019, Kalali Steven vs Attorney General of Rwanda, Mr. Kalali referred the dispute to the regional court.

Last month, June 2022, after more than three years, the court indeed decided that Rwanda’s actions violated the Treaty and ordered Rwanda to ensure compliance with its obligations under the Treaty.

The wheel of justice often times frustratingly grinds ever so slowly. Indeed, by the time the court handed down its decision, political dialogue between the two countries had thankfully enabled the reopening of the border in January 2022.

The court’s decision although very important, had been overtaken by events.

The above delay notwithstanding, I hold the view that the regional court must play a more central role in resolving regional disputes and member states and their organs must respect its decisions if we are to successfully navigate the important journey of integration. Observance of the rule of law engenders trust between member states and their citizens. The court represents the desire by the member states to abide by their obligations in the Treaty and to submit to the rule of law particularly in resolving disputes.

Aside from the border closure, there have been many other instances where member states have taken unilateral action to ‘protect’ their interests without engaging sufficiently in dialogue and without referring the matters to the regional court. An apt example was Kenya unilaterally banning Ugandan imports of eggs for alleged violation of standards. The current tension in the Eastern DRC, the community’s newest member is another example where the role of the regional court as an arbiter of interstate disputes should be utilized as an alternative to violent armed conflict.

The parties should of course continue to engage in political discourse to resolve their differences amicably even when invoking the jurisdiction of the regional court. Both avenues of conflict resolution are healthy and civil as opposed to armed conflict or unilateral action.

On its part, the regional court should seize this moment in time and play a more prominent role by delivering speedy justice. It must do much better than national courts in this regard. Justice delayed is justice denied.

It suffices to say that as a community of nations whose horizon has been ever expanding, we must realise the need for a united and joint effort to achieve full integration.

We must invoke all available mechanisms to resolve our differences amicably and within the confines of the rule of law. The EACJ is an excellent avenue to achieve this goal.

The writer is an Advocate of the High Court of Uganda and the High Court of Kenya. She is a candidate for the EALA 2022-2027.


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