By G9ija

The ECOWAS Court of Justice is mulling setting up a Legal Aid Fund to assist indigent community citizens who cannot afford legal representation, a Judge of the court, Justice Dupe Atoki has disclosed.

Atoki in an address at the a two-day joint retreat organised by the Court and the UN Refugee Agency, (UNHCR), the judge said that the fund would be a  “milestone achievement“ for the ECOWAS region as it would contribute to improving access to the court.

The plan is contained in a statement made available to newsmen on Thursday in Abuja.

According to the statement, Atoki, who led a delegation of the court to a retreat, said the 20-year-old court has so far received a total of 559 cases, from which it had delivered 130 rulings and 301 judgments.

She told the gathering that most of the rulings and judgments related to the human rights mandate of the court.

She said the court continued to receive more complaints daily.

Atoki said despite the court’s laudable achievements, many ECOWAS citizens were unaware of its existence and were, therefore, unable to access it for the protection of their rights.

According to her, this explains why the court has put in place strategies to give itself more visibility.

“The court has intensified efforts to enhance awareness of its existence through its external court sessions, the online publication of its judgments and in the law reports of the court for dissemination within the and outside the region.

“In addition, the court has undertaken sensitisation missions to member-states to raise awareness of key stakeholders about court’s work.

“The court collaborates with international organisations such as the UNHCR, with which it signed an initial Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in 2015, amongst others, to improve on the protection of human rights,” she explained.

However, the judge said that like other victims of human rights violations, the lack of awareness was among the factors inhibiting refugees, migrants, internally displaced persons and stateless people to petition the court as it concerns the violation of their rights by member-states.

In his remarks at the opening, the Deputy Director for Protection of the UNHCR, Mr Xavier Ceach, said that judges, lawyers and other legal practitioners played a critical role in the social change.

He said that their role to advance refugee protection could not be disputed as the legal community has over the years been at the forefront of the refugee case law, as well as legal and normative reform interpretation or court decisions.

Ceach, who has responsibility for West and Central Africa, noted that many ECOWAS member-states had initiated law reforms on asylum, drafting of legal and normative frameworks on asylum, protection of Internally Displaced Persons or nationality law or civil documentation.

While acknowledging that the adoption of a new law or revisiting it in a progressive manner was not an absolute solution to all problems, the UNHCR official said that the court could contribute to the promotion of a regional asylum and solutions framework.

He advised ECOWAS member-states to implement the 1993 Revived Treaty and all other subsidiary legal instruments that impacted on the persons of interest to the UNHCR.

“It is through the implementation of these instruments, he said, that refugees and other persons of concern to UNHCR would be able to voice their plight, secure protection and support and find their way towards greater stability.

Ceach described the ECOWAS Court as ‘an increasingly active and bold adjudicator of human rights,’ which since it acquired its  human rights jurisdiction in 2005,  has issued numerous decisions condemning human rights violations by its member-states.

However, he noted that the court has been faced with significant challenges in providing redress to persons of concern to UNHCR manifested in the noticeably low number of applications filed on asylum and statelessness related issues.

“This might be attributed to a variety of factors such as the limited visibility of the court in member-states;  the limited knowledge and awareness of the mandate of the court; the lack of jurisprudence on international refugee law and human rights law, as well as barriers to access to justice.

“That is the reason why I find this retreat timely, for it offers opportunity to explore ways to broaden cooperation by identifying new areas of engagement, based on mutual interest and consequently provide protection for the rights of persons of concern,” he said.

The retreat, which is being attended by two judges of the Court and 18 other staff, will evaluate the UNHCR-ECCJ partnership to identify the gaps, challenges, and opportunities for improved synergies in order to build a more operational and efficient partnership.

It will also agree on ways to enhance the role of the ECOWAS Court in upholding the protection of the human rights of refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons, stateless persons and those at risk of statelessness in the region.

The retreat is being moderated by the Prof. Tawfiq Ladan, the Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies.