The African Court: From the Politics of Gender to the Gender of Politics?

By J. Jarpa Dawuni, Ph.D. & Sègnonna H. Adjolohoun, Ph.D.*


In September 2018, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACtHPR or the Court) made history by swearing in two female judges, thereby bringing the Court’s composition to six women out of its 11 judges. The Court had thus achieved a female majority bench for the first time since its inception in 2006. The symbolic representation of women judges made the bench the most gender-balanced of all times. While women currently make up 55% of judges on the ACtHPR, they account for 35% of all judges since the Court was established, and only 20% of the leadership in the institution (ie, two women have served in the Bureau versus eight men). In the following discussion, we analyze why women’s symbolic representation has not translated into their substantive leadership within the Court. We query whether the changes introduced to the Rules of Court in 2020, will be a catalyst for a sustainable women’s representation in the Court’s Bureau in the elections slated for 31 May 2021.

Achieving Gender Parity

The women majority bench of the Court is an achievement of an electoral policy adopted within the political sphere of the African Union, including at the helm, by the Assembly of Heads of State and Government (AHSG). The policy is firstly grounded in treaty law as reflected in Article 14(3) of the Court Protocol, which provides that “In the election of the judges, the Assembly shall ensure that there is adequate gender representation”. This statutory commitment was subsequently translated into a Decision of the Executive Council of the African Union, which expressly prescribing that, in addition to the geographical representation, “at least one member from each region should be a woman” and further directing that “the modality shall become effective immediately”. In implementing this Decision during the July 2016 summit held in Kigali, Rwanda, the policy organs postponed the elections of judges for the southern and eastern regions after nominating Member States had filed male candidatures for the concerned seats.

The African Union Commission thereafter put these norms into practice under procedural electoral rules as consistently stated in the Note Verbales transmitted to Member States by the Office of the Legal Counsel ahead of every election of judges to the Court. Prior to achieving gender parity by statutory requirement as earlier explained, the ACtHPR itself had portrayed a predisposition to gender sensitivity by electing two women judges to the Bureau. Justice Sophia A. B. Akuffo of Ghana was first elected as Vice-President in 2008, reelected in 2010, and then as President in 2012; while Judge Elsie Nwanwuri Thompson of Nigeria was elected as Vice-President in 2014.

The Bureau

Established under Article 21 of the Court Protocol, the Bureau of the Court shall consist of a President and a Vice-President, each elected among current judges for a two-year term, renewable once for another two years. The Bureau is responsible for the administrative components of the Court. Since the 2016 Executive Council’s equal representation was applied, only male judges have been elected to serve in the Bureau of the ACtHPR despite the growing number of women joining the Court’s bench.

Pursuant to Rule 11(6) of the 2020 Rules of Court, the next election of members of the Bureau is scheduled to take place on 31 May 2021, which is the first day of the 61st Ordinary Session of the Court. Will the female majority of the bench translate into a gender-balanced leadership within the Bureau? In other words, has the politics of achieving gender parity led to a stagnation in women’s (non)representation in the Bureau rather than promoting their substantive and sustainable representation as could have been expected?