On January 28, the three military juntas in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger announced they would leave the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a move that would limit opportunities for their citizens to seek justice for human rights violations.
In a joint statement, the three countries accused ECOWAS of becoming a threat to its members, of being “under the influence of foreign powers,” and of betraying its founding principles. They also accused the regional body of failing to support their fight against “terrorism and insecurity,” while imposing “illegal, illegitimate, inhumane and irresponsible sanctions” following military coups.
On January 29, ECOWAS chair Nigeria expressed concern over the countries’ decision, saying that “unelected leaders engage in a public posturing to deny their people the sovereign right to make fundamental choices.”
“It was a unilateral decision taken by unelected officials, without any debate, any consultation with the people,” said Alioune Tine, the United Nations Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Mali.
Since 2005, the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice has had jurisdiction to hear human rights cases brought by citizens of ECOWAS states. The court has issued landmark decisions on human rights issues, including some concerning Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. For example, the court issued a 2008 ruling on slavery that held Niger responsible for failing to protect one of its citizens from enslavement by passively tolerating the practice.
Withdrawal from the ECOWAS Treaty will deprive these countries’ citizens of a key avenue for accountability—an independent and impartial tribunal—especially where access to justice at national courts is restricted.
ECOWAS has been calling on the three countries to return to civilian rule and sought to pressure the juntas by imposing sanctions and rejecting junta plans for lengthy democratic transitions.
Mali and Burkina Faso sent formal notice of their withdrawal from ECOWAS on January 29. Niger followed on January 30. The ECOWAS Treaty provides that member states wishing to withdraw from the bloc need to give one year’s notice. So, despite what the junta leaders have said, they have a year to change their mind.