A look at future African leaders: human rights are key

120 African students argued a mock human rights case in Cairo this weekend.

The Egyptian students at this year's All-Africa Human Rights Moot Court Competition seemed to have borrowed their argument from an unlikely source: the Bush administration. They said that the bombing of a remote – and fictional – highland area was part of a larger global war.

"This was actually a war against terror," the neatly dressed young lady argued, staring down a panel of several law-school "judges" from sub-Saharan Africa. "It was against the terrorist act of taking hostages."

The case, pertaining to the imaginary Central African state of Kanu, had been dreamt up for this year's Moot Court, which was held in Cairo and financed largely by donations from South Africa and the United States.

The court is inspired by the African Charter of 1986 which provides Africa with a human rights commission that advises on crucial cases across the continent, but lacks the legal teeth to make its recommendations binding.

Organizers of the Moot Court were elated earlier this year, however, when the newly formed African Union in Durban outlined the need for an Africa-wide human rights court. Five of the needed 15 states have already backed the establishment of a permanent human rights court for the continent.

Such a court would be modeled in large part on the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, say legal experts. Meanwhile, say organizers, the Moot Court is addressing similar issues.

Frans Viljoen, a professor at the Center for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria, who wrote this year's imaginary case, says that he was, "in a sense, inspired by the Afghan scenario."

"It also examines the definition of a terror," he says.

But more important, the case is about Africa, a continent where fledgling democracies often ignore human rights for the interests of leaders or their states.

In the imaginary state of Kanu, the Koo people feel they are not being properly consulted by a multinational mining company extracting mineral resources in the highlands. The "Koo Liberation Movement," (KLM) seizes foreign hostages and when it does not surrender them in time, the government decides to attack. But it first conscripts young children and drops some 1,000 leaflets warning residents a day in advance of a bombing which accidentally kills 40 civilians.

The court will end today when law professors from 60 schools across Africa decide which pair of the nearly 120 students have argued the best cases, both for and against the government.

The students draw lots to choose which side of the case they will argue. For Sarah Adwoa Safo, a student from the University of Ghana, taking the government's side of the case put her in something of a moral dilemma. She is a human rights activist in her spare time who regularly makes the rounds of schools to teach children about their rights.

"According to Article 22 of the UN's Rights and Welfare of the Child, children cannot take direct part in an armed conflict," she argues. "Since the Kanu government was only using these children as informants and since they were not under 15, the legal age for a child soldier under International Humanitarian Law, there is no violation." Her fellow University of Ghana partner, James Mills, bolstered the government's arguments, adding: "Your excellencies, we are before a court of law, not a court of morality.

Participants from Ghana have won the competition four out of 11 years. Right behind them, however, are the South Africans with three wins, who have now taken up the argument for the KLM plaintiffs against Sarah and James.

"Surely, it can be seen that – under the Geneva Conventions – the force used against the hostage-takers was not proportional," argues a young South African woman. "Hostage-taking does not give the government the right to bomb civilian areas."

Organizers of this year's Moot Court say that the competition and its growing popularity is indicative of a decades-old drive for more democracy and human rights in Africa.

"Clearly after the cold war, there has been a move towards democratization in Africa, which has, to some extent, escaped the Saharan parts of the continent," says Jean Allain, professor of international law at the American University in Cairo. "People are getting a greater say and human rights is a part of that."

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