Start main page content

Human rights monitors under threat

- Lee-Anne Bruce

CALS has been admitted as a friend of the court in a matter where the City is attempting to block human rights monitors from accessing a shelter

[UPDATE]: The hearing on 20 May was postponed for medical reasons. The matter is now set be heard on 9 June 2020. 

On Wednesday, 20 May, the Western Cape High Court will hear an application brought by the City of Cape Town in an attempt to interdict human rights monitors from accessing a temporary shelter set up during the current pandemic. The South African Human Rights Commission last month released a report recommending the shelter be shut down for failing to adhere to human rights standards. The Court has ordered that the Commission be given access pending the outcome of this case.

Several months ago, the City of Cape Town established the Strandfontein temporary relocation camp in order for the city’s homeless population to have a place to shelter during lockdown. Towards the end of April, the South African Human Rights Commission released a report into conditions at the shelter and concluding that the site “is in gross violation of national and international human rights and must be closed down with immediate effect.”

The City of Cape Town has responded to the report by refusing to allow human rights monitors to perform their duties and launching an application to interdict them from accessing the shelter. Earlier this month, the Human Rights Commission delegated its oversight powers to individuals in each province to act as monitors and record human rights violations on the ground. On Friday, 15 May, the Court ordered that selected representatives from the Commission, including five monitors, must be granted access to the shelter.

The Court further granted the Centre for Applied Legal Studies leave to intervene in the matter as a friend of the court. We hope to assist the Court with arguments around the importance of oversight bodies like the Human Rights Commission during the pandemic, and outline research on the potentially disastrous effects of this kind of litigation against human rights defenders. In particular, we argue that the City’s application amounts to strategic litigation against public participation, otherwise known as a ‘SLAPP’ suit. 

“The Commission plays an essential role as a human rights oversight body,” says Sithuthukile Mkhize from CALS. “It’s more important than ever during a state of disaster when rights are necessarily limited to have an institution whose duty is to ensure this is not overstepped and vulnerable people are not further violated.”

“What is particularly chilling is that individual human rights monitors are cited in the litigation by name,” argues Thandeka Kathi. “This could have devastating implications not only for these individuals, but it could have the effect of intimidating and silencing other human rights monitors from fulfilling their duties at the risk of litigation from other powerful entities.”

“One of our organisational missions is to contribute to the expansion of the agency of marginalised actors,” says CALS Director, Prof Tshepo Madlingozi. “Our ongoing campaign against SLAPP suits is one of the key strategies we are using to achieve this goal. Activist victimisation, as we have shown in our 2018 research report, has devastating consequences for human rights defenders who are simply trying to promote the rights of their communities.”

Read more in our amicus application here and heads of argument here.

Read the City of Cape Town's papers here and the South African Human Rights Commission's heads of argument here

The urgent application will be heard by the Western Cape High Court on 14 May 2020 from 10:00.

For inquiries, please contact: