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Justice Asuagbor Re-elected Commissioner At African Court 

Interviewed by Bouddih Adams — Cameroonian born Justice Lucy Asuagbor has just been re-elected Commissioner at the African Commission of Human and Peoples’ Rights, otherwise known as the African Court, that sits in Banjul, The Gambia. The Cameroon Court of Appeal judge, in this interview granted in Buea upon her homecoming after the re-election, gives the workings of the Commission and dispels misgivings about her role in the African Court.

You have just been re-elected Commissioner of the African Charter for Peoples’ and Political Rights, how would you appreciate the conduct of the election?

The elections took place during the last session of the African Union – the session at which 50 years of the Union was celebrated. Usually, before the elections proper begins, an announcement is made that the candidates should leave the hall. So on my part I don’t know what happened but prior to that, I had duly forwarded my application and was duly recommended for nomination by the Government of Cameroon,  and to my application was attached a copy of my curriculum vitae and a letter of motivation as to why I think I should qualify for that position.

What would you say put you above the other contestants?

I can’t really say, but, as I said, I sent in my application and my CV and a letter of motivation; personally I believe I was fit for the position because of my CV which I believe is well garnished, as a Chief Justice for about 10 years, as a member of the Higher Judicial Council of my country, and my qualification; already I have done International Law at several levels, above all my bilingual nature and the bi-jural nature of our country- I think it was an edge over the other candidates. I will like to seize this wonderful opportunity to thank President Paul Biya and the entire Government of my country for supporting my candidature and for doing all that was necessary to ensure my election. 

As Commissioner, what are your duties?

We are 11 Commissioners – 11 Commissioners from different countries. Each Commissioner has countries s/he is responsible for, where s/he follows up Human Rights situations in them. I am responsible for five countries, among them Uganda, Nigeria, Rwanda.  So we follow up the Human Rights situation on a daily basis; if there is any violation or any news that requires our attention we address it either through letters of allegation or through press conferences, press release through the Commission.

And normally, we are expected as Commissioner in charge of following up the Human Rights situation of that country to visit the country at least once in two years. Again, the Commission has mechanisms and assigns Commissioners to mechanisms, for example, I am the Chairperson of the Committee in charge of persons living with HIV, I am again a member of the working group on the rights of indigenous populations. So I have those two mechanisms. Now we have another mechanism which was recently created; specific issues that regard the Commission itself. I am a member of this Committee too.

How does your membership of this Commission and these activities benefit your country, Cameroon?

I think it is just part of diplomacy. Cameroon having taken the engagement as a member of the African Union, and since the Commissioners come from the member states, it is pride for a country to have its own citizen as a member of the Commission. In as much as it is clear from the Charter which sets the condition for eligibility that once elected, the Commissioner becomes independent of his or her native country.

But there have to be proposed for nomination by their own countries but elected by all the assembly of Heads of States and Governments through their foreign representatives, members of the foreign affairs of the respective countries. So I think it is just the pride and satisfaction that you have your own citizen as a member. But usually it shouldn’t impact negatively in the sense that when there is a matter concerning that particular country, the Commissioner from that country leaves the hall, s/he does not sit on the matter.

You are therefore saying that you are not versed with the case for self determination of the Southern Cameroons before the Commission?

Usually when those matters come up, I am obliged to leave the hall. So I cannot tell you anything about them.

Matters before the Commission are said to take so long, thus people see the Commission as some kind of safari for Commissioners?

You know, like any other judicial matter it is a question of due process. When there is a complaint, the complaint is forwarded to the state which is indicted; the state makes a statement. The Commission, for example, has three stages; when a complaint comes, the commission is seized of the complaint that is the first aspect. At the seizure stage, the defendant state does not appear, it is only the complainant that appears.  Then, after that it comes for admissibility.

At the admissibility stage, the state is called upon to give its submissions as to whether the complaint will be admissible or not, following the conditions laid down in Article 56 of the Charter. Then after the submission of the state, the complainant replies. When we receive the reply of the complainant, we inform the state if it has any additional response to make, then, it is put for judgement – judgement on admissibility.

It is only after it has been rendered admissible then we start hearing the merits. We start going from the submissions of the complainant to the submissions of the state, back to the complainant until we are sure that everything is closed then we give our final consideration which ends up with a recommendation – our decisions are called recommendations.

Does the Commission have power or tool of enforceability? What if a state does not respect the Commission’s decision?

We don’t have the power of enforcement, in that; firstly our decisions are regarded as recommendations. But ordinarily, in international law, conventions are meant to be respected on the basis of pacta sunt servenda. If all the states are of good faith, then there really will be no problem. But unfortunately sometimes –it is not every time that they implement the decisions.

But usually if they don’t implement, at the end of the day the decisions are referred to the assembly of Heads of States and Governments which may use other procedures to oblige them to execute. But the Commission as such does not have powers of enforcement. And it is because of this that, eventually, the African Court was created in 1999 in order to complement the protective mandate of the Commission. The decisions of the African Court are meant to be binding.

Can an individual bring a case before another individual, if all local avenues in his or her country have been exhausted without having justice?

No. The Commission is competent to hear matters between states and states or individuals against states.

Let us talk about you. You seem to have three caps;  one as Commissioner, one as Southwest Court of Appeal President and the other as the mother and keeper of a home. How do you wear all these caps at the same time?

I think it is a question of organisation – the organisation of work. I have a diary; I move along with my diary. So, at any given time, if I am supposed to take any engagement, I look into my calendar to see how busy I would be during that period. So as much as possible I try to comply with my obligations at all levels.

How often does the commission sit?

In principle the Commission sits four times a year; two ordinary sessions and two extra-ordinary sessions. Sometimes if we don’t have funding we don’t make all the four sittings. But it is obvious that the ordinary sessions must always take place, with at least one extra-ordinary session. So, four times a year, but within the year too, you may have a country visit to any of the countries you are responsible for, or some other activity within the special mechanism as I said earlier.  But I think it is possible to combine those three heads. It is just a question of organisation.

As an Icon to especially the women folk who look up to you, what would you tell them?

My message to them is that of hard work and perseverance, believing that it will always be rewarded, and above all that our destiny is in the hands of God. I trust that, somehow, merit is always rewarded.

And on the upcoming Municipal and Council elections and the campaign for a quota for women?

Normally, if we were to stick strictly to African Union Standards, we should have at least 30 percent of women. Some countries are already respecting that and some have even gone up to 50 percent. But I think Cameroon is gradually improving, because at the level of Government we see that with every new Government, we have a few more women. Even at the level of representation at the National Assembly and the Senate I think there is some progress.

My encouragement is that women should be a little more interested in politics. You can’t just grab the women and put them there if they themselves don’t vie for such positions. Our women would rather struggle to see the men voted rather than they, themselves, standing for the elections. So, I think they should demonstrate more interest in politics.

First published in The Post print edition no 01437

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