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Slavery Unveiled by the Ecowas Court

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  Web Editor:
  Vernellia R. Randall
Professor of Law
The University of Dayton
Web Editor

Helen Duffy

Helen Duffy, Hadijatou Mani Koroua V Niger: Slavery Unveiled by the Ecowas Court , 9 Human Rights Law Review 151-170 (2009) (89 footnotes omitted).


In a judgment handed down by the Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS Court) on 27 October 2008, the state of Niger was found in violation of its international obligations to protect Hadijatou Mani from slavery.

The judgment has been referred to as historic, which is justified in several respects. This is one of the first slavery cases ever to be won at the international level and the first to expose and condemn the practice of slavery in Niger, *152 which although widespread continues to be denied by the state. It is also one of the few times that the ECOWAS Court's human rights jurisdiction has been engaged, and signals the potential strengths and shortcomings of emerging sub-regional courts as human rights fora. As a legal document, it has strengths and weaknesses: while stronger in its approach to and findings on slavery, it is open to criticism in its approach to other human rights issues, notably discrimination. The judgment's primary significance, however, lies in the vindication of the victim's rights and its potential--as yet uncertain--to contribute to the effective eradication of the abomination of slavery in West Africa.

The first part of this note describes the background and context to this case: Hadijatou's experience of enslavement, the broader practice of slavery in Niger that her case illustrates, and her thwarted efforts to secure justice in national courts. The second part concerns the case before the ECOWAS Court, focusing on a summary and analysis of the judgment, followed by comment on the role of the ECOWAS Court. The concluding section explores briefly the judgment's potential significance and the challenge of implementation.

. . .

5. Conclusions

The importance of the Hadijatou Mani v Niger judgment lies on many different levels. Its contribution to the body of jurisprudence on slavery in international law and to an assessment of the potential importance, as well as limitations, of the ECOWAS Court, have been referred to above.

Its primary significance, however, lies in the recognition and vindication it provides for the victim. As a slave, Hadijatou Mani was devoid of legal personality. During her testimony before the Court in April 2008, she told how she was treated 'like a goat'. This judgment reasserts her rights as a human being. In the face of denial by the state, the Court's clear acknowledgement of the 'on-going' nature of Sadaka slavery, and the extent of her own tremendous suffering and enslavement, is itself of real value. The award of compensation and recognition of her entitlement to assistance in reinserting herself in the society from which she has been alienated since birth, provides hope for a different future for her and her children.

The extent of its impact on slavery in Niger remains uncertain. The litigation process itself, even prior to judgment, had already made a significant contribution to exposing the existence of slavery and undoing the conspiracy of *170 silence that has surrounded it to date. While clearly no panacea, it remains to be seen whether it may act as a catalyst to the development of the sort of multifaceted eradication strategy that is urgently required. It is for Niger to conduct a thorough investigation and assess the changes needed to give effect to its international obligations and internal laws. However, the facts of this case suggest that this will include awareness-raising at the community level, capacity building among judicial and administrative organs of the state, tackling the difficult issue of the role and practice of customary law and courts and their consistency with international and internal law, as well as a serious programme of victim protection, and of investigation and prosecution of those responsible. Implementation of the judgment is, therefore, a short-term as well as long-term challenge. It remains to be seen whether the state, and the broader international community, will show the necessary commitment to realise the judgment's potential to protect the thousands of other Hadijatou Manis.

[FNa1]. Litigation Director, INTERIGHTS (hduffy@interights.org). The author acted as co-counsel in the case, alongside Nigerian lawyer, M. Abdourahaman Chaibou, and Senegalese lawyer, M. Ibrahima Kane. The case was supported by Anti-Slavery International and Nigerian Anti-Slavery Organisation, Timidria. The views are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of INTERIGHTS, Hadijatou Mani or anyone else. The author is grateful to Romana Cacchioli, Andrea Coomber and Fabricio Guariglia for comments on this article.
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