African Regional Judges’ Forum highlights impact of COVID-19 on the rights of marginalized and vulnerable populations

August 2, 2021

Stephane Bellerose / UNDP Mauritius

Over the past seven years, UNDP’s HIV, Health and Development Team has supported a growing network of over 60 prominent judges across Africa who meet annually to share knowledge and discuss developments in jurisprudence relating to HIV, TB, sexual and reproductive health and rights and the law.

With the impact of COVID-19, the African Regional Judges’ Forum (ARJF) was not able to meet in person in 2020. However, a recent Virtual Forum held on 22 July and convened with the support of UNDP and the Southern African Litigation Centre (SALC), met to discuss the critical ways in which COVID-19, associated lockdown laws and law enforcement has impacted on marginalized and vulnerable populations’ health and other socio-economic rights and on access to justice in our countries.

The discussion focused particularly on the intersection of COVID-19 and the rights of LGBTI populations, including the way COVID-related quarantine restrictions have abused legitimate laws and policies to target vulnerable populations.

“In my mind, the state is obliged to pay attention to the fact that LGBTI persons, who often suffer rejection by family members, are more likely to suffer from anguish and mental distress as a consequence of enforced lock downs and quarantine,” said Hon Justice Prof Oagile Key Dingake, with the Seychelles Court of Appeal.

In Uganda, for example, the police arrested 23 people at a shelter for LGBTI homeless youth for alleged violations of quarantine restrictions, charging them with “negligent act[s] likely to spread infection of disease” and “disobedience of lawful orders.” 20 of the 23 suspects were moved to prison, where there were reports of torture and where they remained for almost two months, before a court ordered their release and charges were dropped.

The judges discussed various challenges facing the judiciary and judicial processes during COVID-19, and shared experiences for efforts to strengthen access to justice for issues like increased inter-personal violence during COVID-19.

The Judges’ Forum (ARJF) has been recognized over the years for its’ influential membership and the impact of their progressive jurisprudence across the region. It is currently supported by UNDP’s Inclusive Governance Initiative (IGI), chaired by Hon Justice Prof Oagile Key Dingake currently with the Seychelles Court of Appeal, and co-chaired by Hon Justice Zukisa Tshiqi of South Africa’s Constitutional Court.

The Forum is proud to include among its members the recently appointed Hon Lady Chief Justice Martha Koome from Kenya, as well as Justice Mumbi Ngugi, a long-standing Forum leader, who was recently awarded the Global Jurist of the Year award by Northwestern Pritzker School of Law’s Center for International Human Rights for her defence of human rights and diversity during her career. 

The ARJF hopes to hold an in-person Forum in late 2021. In the meantime, UNDP will support the ARJF to develop and maintain an online community of practice, as requested by Forum members, so they can stay in touch with each other, share and access resources, hold learning events and continue to collaborate with each other, between meetings.