This article was originally written for Bitala & Co. Advocates’ weekly newsletter.
(1) Regional integration.
Regional integration is a process in which states enter into a regional agreement in order to enhance regional cooperation through institutions and rules.
In the East African Community integrity process, like in many other regional organisations, efforts have often focused on removing barriers to free trade in the region, increasing the free movement of people, labour, goods, and capital across national borders, reducing the possibility of regional armed conflict and adopting cohesive regional stances on policy issues, such as the environment, climate change and migration.
The East African Community has adopted fundamental and operational principles that govern the achievement of the objectives of the Community.
The discussion on the role of legal profession in the integration opens new intellectual space. It provides a concept that allows us to discuss the role of the lawyers, partner states and other stakeholders have in making the justice system as an aspect of regional integration function. These are key players especially in the operationalisation of adherence to law, one of the identified functions to be fulfilled in the integration process as partner states implement the programmes developed.
However, are we aware of what this all means, and could possibly mean. Most of us, at least the ones I have conferred with, are mired by a cloud of ignorance about their membership in, responsibilities to, and functions of their integral or regional society. Unlike most of them, I decided to enlighten myself and share my findings.
(2) The functions of integration initiatives.
Whether they are achieving them or otherwise is a discussion for another day. However, what we can all agree upon is that regional integration initiatives in East Africa should be able to fulfil the following the following functions;
(a) The strengthening of trade integration in the region,
(b) The creation of an appropriate enabling environment for private sector development,
(c) The development of programmes in support of economic growth and regional integration,
(d) The development of strong public sector institutions and good governance.
(3) The importance of integration.
The cardinal importance of regional integration is advocating for good governance, observance of human rights, and availing access to justice. The importance of good governance and access to justice to economic development, peace and security and social cohesion cannot be over-emphasised.
There are already commendable developments at both the regional and national levels aimed at strengthening the administration of justice and bringing issues of good governance to the fore. These include, amongst others, the creation of regional non-treaty bodies and institutions such as the East African Law Society.
(4) The interests of national societies.
Traditionally, national societies have a tri-pronged constituency, which is, briefly, consolidated or crystallized from the following options;
(a) Its membership, since they are membership based organisations that have to address the professional skills requirements and social needs of their members.
(b) The public, because national societies are a repository of legal knowledge, skills, and information, and have a crucial role to play in the legal representation and empowerment of the population.
(c) The state or government, particularly in areas of legal and policy formulation of the state with the ideals of the administration of justice and the rule of law.
(5) The roles of national societies vis-a-vis a regional society.
It is rather disheartening when you hear from some of the prospective members of the regional society and some of those who are already there. Even when they are well aware of their duties to their individual clients and to their national societies, some of them are not enlightened about their responsibilities to the regional society. Their duties, to the regional society, include some of the following;
(a) Legal empowerment, which is rooted in a human rights based approach to development aims address disempowerment, exclusion and discrimination of especially the poor, unfortunate individuals in the community we share.
Sadly, I have heard a member tell me that having paid for his membership, he does not know what he ought to do with, or benefit from his membership.
(b) National societies legal and policy advocacy and reform interventions should be geared at ensuring that these are not only reflected in the national laws and policies, but that these are not only reflected in the national laws and policies, but that they are actually implemented once enacted or passed.
National societies are doing well enough already. A regional society will need a functioning platform to be effective. Currently, it operates within particular limits, those which should not exist. Without cross border practice, it is still complicated for the interested or instructed to represent a client in another jurisdiction on the mere basis of membership of a regional society. This reduces it to nothing but a prestigious society.
(c) Human rights and governance advocacy requires excellent research, engagement and litigation skills that traditionally do not form part of the educational curriculums of our schools and colleges. This expertise is usually acquired through apprenticeship or acquaintance with veterans in the discipline with varying degrees of success.
My personal experience, from when I worked as an associate advocate in another jurisdiction, was rather unfortunate. Before adapting, I was nothing more than “that small man from Uganda who does not know anything, who, certainly, was not taught anything in law school”, much to the ignorance and dearth of a dignity of difference in my apprenticeship master, one whom I had found and taken up with only out of desperation, after being unfairly denied opportunities elsewhere.
The task then falls on the national societies to identify this talent through the myriad of professional development programs that they conduct, and bring their members to speed with the national and regional developments on good governance and human rights and more.
National associations should also develop advocacy manuals and litigation toolkits for their members, so that they can effectively engage in the process of monitoring and reporting on the state of good governance in their respective countries, and engage regional and national judicial institutions to ensure compliance with universally accepted benchmarks of good governance and human rights.
The goal of achieving the above should be consolidating them to enable common or shared benefits for both members and prospective members – as it is mandatory to be in some jurisdictions – of the regional society so as to have an enriching experience, practice, and network.
(d) The common law doctrine of precedent also means that compendiums on judicial precedence and jurisprudence in any given area of the law will to a greater extent forecast the direction in which a particular matter before the courts of law will be decided, and offer both litigants and activists fodder for advancing their respective campaigns.
As such, national associations must endeavour to undertake continuous research and documentation of jurisprudence and other topical developments in governance and justice; to put together an authoritative arsenal on which the actors in the governance and justice sector can always fall back on.
This may be in the form of legal compendiums, legal and policy, as well as newsletters and magazines, through which the national societies will also generate and sustain debate on the governance and justice related issues at both national and national levels.
This is already a shared reality and one within reach. The East African Court of Justice, for example, has done very well. While the legislative and executive organs are working towards the creation of an enabling environment for the political integration to be a reality by enacting community laws and adopting policies of the implementation of these laws, the judicial organ of the Community has played the crucial role of ensuring respect for the founding principles of the community. In doing so, the court has been and is being assisted by the lawyers representing the parties or coming in as friends of the court (amicus curiae). The regional society also keeps an impressive, informative, up-to-date or periodic magazine which profiles illustrations on a range of topical issues that pertain to the region.
(e) The tangible benefit – as a friend, who is a member, one that has not yet paid his membership half way into the year told me – is in the encouragement of networking and coalitions.
All human rights and enfranchisement movements that sought to establish equitable participation and social inclusion, as well as accountable, representative and participatory governments were complex processes that did not succeed on their sole strength, approach or design.
The need for working together across professions and institutions if meaningful impact of any intervention is to be achieved is major. We are now witnessing this trend even at the regional level, where a number of forums and networks of professions or organisations focusing on good governance and justice have been formed. These include the East African law Society; the East African Judges and Magistrates Association; the East Africa Police Chiefs Cooperation Organisation, as well as the Forum for EAC National Electoral Commissions.
Grass root communities will only be nurtured through partnerships with other civil society organisations and other critical actors like the judiciary, law reform commissions, penal detention institutions, as well as the legal sector reform programs.
Cooperation at the regional level through the East African Law Society will inoculate the national societies from any political backlashes that they may otherwise suffer arising out of their advocacy work on the state of governance and human rights in their respective countries.
With cross border practice not so much of eons away, regional integration will, hopefully, be helpful to many, in especially helping all of us – the regional society members – finally go beyond our traditional boundaries. Till then, we will have a lot to align before we realise the rewards of our growing togetherness.