Benin partial withdrawal from African Charter of Human Rights is a retreat from democracy

On April 23, Benin announced its withdrawal from a key document of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, a decision which threatens to limit citizen access to justice under its terms.

Alain Orounla, communications minister and chief spokesperson of the government of Benin, said that his country was withdrawing from the protocol of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) which allows a citizen or an organization to make a direct application to the African Court of Human Rights.

The ACHPR derives from an African intercontinental convention held under the auspices of the Organisation of African Unity, and ratified by Benin on January 20, 1986, with headquarters in Arusha, Tanzania.

Orounla’s position, as given to the journalist Arnaud Doumanhoun:

…Benin remains a party to the African Charter of Human Rights, and continues to strive toward the protection and safeguarding of human rights.  With this exception: the country no longer adheres to the mechanism or the procedure which authorise citizens to make direct application to the African Court of Human Rights.

Sévérin Quenum, minister of justice and legislation, justified the withdrawal in a declaration, reported by journalist Raymond Falade:

For several years now, certain rulings made by the African Court of Human and People’s Rights have given grave cause for concern because of ‘severe anomalies which have driven Tanzania, its host country, and Rwanda, to withdraw from participation over individual and NGO access arrangements.’

It would nonetheless seem that the door of the African Court of Human and People’s Rights is not totally closed to Benin citizens. Nathaniel Kitti, president of the Beninese Movement For the Defence of Human Rights (MBDH), writes:

…this withdrawal does not block absolutely their access to the court to claim protection of their rights as guaranteed by the African Charter of Human and People’s Rights. According to the above communiqué, ‘in accordance with Article 119.4 of its Rules of Procedure, they may present communications to the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights with no State having the right to object.’

Benin’s recent embarrassment: The sentencing of Sébastien Ajavon

One of the reasons which could explain Benin’s partial withdrawal is a judicial case going back to October 2018.

The Benin businessman and politician, Sébastien Ajavon, had just been sentenced to 20 years in prison plus a fine of 5 million CFA francs (nearly $8,400 United States dollars), by the Court for the Prevention of Economic and Terrorist Offences. The accused being at the time outside Benin, the court had issued an international arrest warrant against him.

His lawyers had appealed to the ACHPR, which, in March 2019, after several delays, had ordered the Benin state to quash Ajavon’s conviction and to pay compensation of approximately 40 billion CFA francs (around $66 million USD) to him.

Sébastien Ajavon also complained to the ACHPR against the exclusion of his party, the Social Democratic Union, from the local elections called for May 17, 2020. Here again, the court ruled in favor of the plaintiff and ordered Benin state to suspend elections, until such time as the court could examine Ajavon’s deposition.

Journalist F. Aubin Ahéhéhinnou writes about the reaction of Benin’s bar association official arbiter of disputes, Maitre Cyrille Djikui, one of the lawyers allocated by the Beninese government to his defense:

For the arbiter, the continental jurisdiction is exceeding its brief, and interfering ‘a little too much in the affairs of states…One gets the impression that States no longer have sovereignty, that states can no longer exercise self-determination.’

Major setback for freedom of speech

Democracy in Benin seems to have been sharply set back since Patrice Talon’s election to the country’s presidency in April 2016.

The politician is also a businessman, ranking 15th in the wealth stakes in French-speaking sub-Saharan Africa, and thus wields power in his country. But the government’s decision to withdraw from the protocol provoked strong feelings among human rights activists like Samira Daoud, regional director of Amnesty International for West and Central Africa:

The African Court of Human and People’s Rights is once again the target of political attacks by those governments with little regard for human rights. By this act, Benin is undermining efforts to build a credible and effective regional system of human rights protection.

Benin’s digital communications law 2017-20, of April 20, 2018, includes some clauses that criminalize the publication of false information. Amnesty International commented on this law and stated:

At least 17 journalists, bloggers and oppositionists have been prosecuted in under two years under a law currently in force, whose repressive provisions are putting freedom of speech and freedom of the media in peril in Benin…

In less than a month, two journalists, Ignace Sossou and Aristide Fassinou Hounkpevim, and eight other cyberactivists, had become the latest victims of this law’s repressive provisions.

#Benin tumbles further down the #RSF Index, to 113th out of 180 – 17 places lower. By the last Index, it had already dropped 12 places. At Patrice Talon’s coming to power, the country was 78th. It had gone up 6 places that very month, April 2016.

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