By Cassandra Betts
It’s a warm Wednesday morning in July, and six of us are gathered in the upstairs conference room, anxiously fiddling with HDMI cables and speakers. Usually, everyone comes upstairs every other Friday to discuss cases, bounce legal arguments off each other, and brainstorm grant proposals and workshop logistics. The meetings are typically long but lighthearted, the mood oscillating from somber as someone recounts the details of fundamental human rights violations, to more playful as colleagues bicker amiably about whether or not to turn off the AC.
After these meetings, we go outside to the bantaba. Some of us eat “breakfast,” wonderful, oily chicken legs heaped with peppery onions, or an entire fish; head, tail and bones nestled in crinkled crispy skin. We rummage in the bread box for the last piece of tapalapa and drink black tea with condensed milk poured straight from a punctured can. If it’s someone’s birthday there will be cake, and Don Simon multifruta juice poured into soft plastic cups.
Today feels different. Through the lens of a webcam, our casual Friday meeting space has been transformed into a temporary limb of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court of Justice. One of the senior legal officers is dressed for court. In his formal collar, long black robes and tattered wig, he looks out of place surrounded by wires and interns instead of wood-paneled benches and an assortment of African flags. The once tight ringlets of the wig unfurl across his neck like sand-worn clamshells. He is trying to set up the projector so that we can see his screen and watch the court proceedings without appearing on camera ourselves. Finally, he gives up and resorts to tilting his screen towards us in the moments his camera is off. The judgments are about to be read.
This virtual ECOWAS session is one of the few reminders that COVID still exists in The Gambia. When I first got here in May, masks were still ubiquitous back in Canada, and mandatory in most public spaces such as transit. My first few days were spent adjusting, not only to the fact that public transit meant jostling into large white vans with dozens of talking, coughing, breathing, strangers, but also to the fact that COVID was not the predominant topic of conversation. At the breakfast table, colleagues discussed the political situation in their home countries, contemplated theology and religion, and of course, dissected the performance of their favourite soccer players. In one of the rare instances when COVID did come up, my friend joked that she would just feed me her homemade malaria remedy and I’d be fixed right up. Out of all the culture shocks I experienced in the Gambia, I think one of the starkest was relearning to operate in an in-person space where everyone’s face was bare. But, like the thick Gambian heat and dusty roads, I soon grew used to it, and it was almost strange to be sitting in a conference room, once again tuning in to the virtual world.
IHRDA has two cases that are set to be decided this July morning. The first ends up being postponed. After that anti-climactic announcement, the room feels even more tense as we wait for the second judgment. IHRDA filed this case in 2021, on behalf of a woman whose rape was not investigated, despite reporting it to the police. Apparently, judgments are usually read aloud verbatim, but today, in the interest of time, they have been shortened, so only a summary is shared. The full judgments will be emailed later. When the case is finally called, my supervisor rotates his laptop so that we are no longer visible, turns on his camera, and addresses the court.
What follows next is a flurry, a judge reading a summary of the judgment in what I think is Portuguese, a translator speaking over him on the screen. I, along with the rest of the conference room, sit stone-still, hushed and stiff, trying to take notes on what is being conveyed. I think we’ve won. I’m not sure though. The country in question, Sierra Leone, has definitely been condemned for something. If I’ve heard correctly, they’ve been ordered to pay the plaintiff $10,000 USD. My supervisor, however, still looks tense and not necessarily jubilant, like he’s straining to hear something more.
After the court formalities are finished and the directors have popped in to debrief and organize next steps, my supervisor takes the time to explain the case and judgment to me and the legal fellows. He lets us read his submissions, and says that the court found that Sierra Leone failed in its responsibility to guarantee the Plaintiff access to remedy and protection from abuses as provided for in several regional and international human rights legal instruments, notably the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. However, he also explains that he is frustrated that the court did not accept his argument that this gender-based violence rose to the level of discrimination against women. He has been trying to get the ECOWAS court to recognize this in its jurisprudence through multiple submissions, but so far, they have not acknowledged those arguments.
“I should go call the victim” he finally says after answering all our questions.
“How do you think she’ll react?” I ask.
My supervisor only pauses for a second. “She’ll be happy” he offers. “I think she’ll feel vindicated. Like she’s finally seeing justice.”
Above all, this is what sticks with me: this sharp juxtaposition between my supervisor’s disappointment at having his hopes of expanding human rights law through this case quashed and his profound recognition of how much this ruling will mean to the woman in question. It made me contemplate the purpose of human rights law and the meaning of justice. Ideally, each case would achieve a strategic objective, expand a body of jurisprudence in a way that would be beneficial to protecting others in the future, while simultaneously being victim-centered and meeting their needs. But in cases where both outcomes are not possible, having a victim feel like she is finally seeing justice should be enough. My supervisor recognized that, and I was always grateful when he made that clear. I found it very easy to get caught up in being critical: how can money compensate the trauma of rape, what is being done to change systems and structures to make this less common in the future, how can we force states to implement changes that have been ordered? These things are important, but there is also something to be said for placing individuals, humans, at the center of human rights and understanding the many facets of justice.