On 11 May 2018, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights(ACtHPR, or ‘the Court’) has issued its judgement in the case of Association Pour le Progrès et la Défense des Droits des Femmes Maliennes (APDF) and the Institute For Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA) v Republic of Mali.Mali, the respondent state, had submitted before the Court that they could not promulgate the 2009 Family Code which would have ended many discriminations between boys and girls under the age of 18 because of a ‘force majeure’, namely, ‘a mass protest movement against the Family Code [that] halted the process’. The Republic of Mali also claimed that ‘the State was faced with a huge threat of social disruption, disintegration of the nation and upsurge of violence, the consequence of which could have been detrimental to peace, harmonious living and social cohesion; that the mobilisation of religious forces attained such a level that no amount of resistance action could contain it’.
This post focuses on the notion of force majeure under international law and argues that while the Court got it right in not recognising the events listed by Mali as constituting force majeure, they should have addressed the arguments based on this latter. Moreover, by definition, the notion of force majeure can never encompass socio-cultural factors that are endemic to the state and that already existed at the moment of the signature and ratification of a treaty.
The applicants had submitted inter alia that Article 281 of the Malian law establishing the Family Code currently into force sets the minimum age for contracting marriage at eighteen for boys and sixteen for girls, while Article 6(b) of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (also known as the Maputo protocol), which was ratified by Mali in 2005, sets that age at 18 for both. They further pointed out that the same law allows for special exemption for marriage as from fifteen years, with the father’s or mother’s consent for the boy, and only the father’s consent, for the girl. They also lamented that the Republic of Mali had not done enough to align itself other international treaty obligations, which included Article 1(3) of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child,(also known as the Children’s Charter) according to which, ‘[a]ny custom, tradition, cultural or religious practice that is inconsistent with the rights, duties and obligations contained in the present Charter shall to the extent of such inconsistency, be discouraged’; and Article 21 of the same Charter which provides that ‘[s]tate Parties to the present Charter shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate harmful social and cultural practices affecting the welfare, dignity, normal growth and development of the child and in particular those customs and practices prejudicial to the health or life of the child; and those customs and practices discriminatory to the child on the grounds of sex or other status’ [emphasis added]. This notwithstanding the alarming data provided by the World Bank concerning child marriage (i.e., more than 59% of women between 18 and 22 got married under the age of 18),
Mali had submitted that they could not promulgate a new Family Code because of a mass protest movement and an irresistible resistance from religious forces in the country, which could justify their force majeure arguments before the Court. While the Court held that Mali violated Articles 2 (2) and 6 of the Maputo Protocol, Articles 1 (3) and 21 of the Children’s Charter and Articles 5 (a), 6 and 10 of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women(CEDAW), they fully overlooked the argument about force majeure.
The reasons behind the Malian argument on force majeure
The arguments put forward by the respondent state could adequately be met by a typical derogation clause, such as that contained in article 15 of the European Convention of Human Rights.While article 15 itself provides that this clause can only be invoked in time of war or other public emergencies threatening the life of the nation, the European Court of Human Rights has consistently recognised the existence of a wide margin of appreciation upon states. However, the Court has also held clearly that state parties do not enjoy unlimited power. In particular, the measures undertaken by the state should be strictly required by the situation and cannot be inconsistent with other obligations under international law. In the case at issue, these could for instance be those stemming from the CEDAW or the Children’s Charter. However, the African Charter and, as a consequence, its Protocols, do not contain any clause of such a kind. The same applies to the Children’s Charter and CEDAW. Hence, arguably, the respondent state’s attempt to rely on force majeure.
Force majeureunder Public International Law
The International Law Commission (ILC)’s 2001 Draft Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts includes force majeure among the circumstances excluding wrongfulness. Pursuant to its article 23 (1), ‘[t]he wrongfulness of an act of a State not in conformity with an international obligation of that State is precluded if the act is due to force majeure, that is the occurrence of an irresistible forceor of an unforeseen event, beyond the control of the State, making it materially impossible in the circumstances to perform the obligation[emphasis added]’. In its Commentary relating to this article, the ILC states ‘[f]orce majeure differs from a situation of distress (art. 24) or necessity (art. 25) because the conduct of the State which would otherwise be internationally wrongful is involuntary or at least involves no element of free choice.’ Moreover, the ILC expressly notes that ‘[f]orce majeure does not include circumstances in which performance of an obligation has become more difficult, for example due to some political or economic crisis’. This was also the view of the Arbitral Tribunal set up by an agreement between France and New Zealand, in the famous Rainbow Warrior case, when the Tribunal held that ‘New Zealand is right in asserting that the excuse of force majeure is not of relevance in this case because the test of its applicability is of absolute and material impossibility, and because a circumstance rendering performance more difficult or burdensome does not constitute a case of force majeure’.
Coming to the case at issue, while it is evident that the mass protests and the religious forces were –by the admission of Mali- ‘socio-cultural realities’ of Mali,and therefore could not be seen as an unforeseen event, theoretically they could, however, represent an ‘irresistible force’. Yet, the respondent state should have proved that the events would not make it simply difficult for the State to promulgate the law, but actually impossible. Otherwise, the lack-of-free-choice requirement provided by Article 23 of the 2001 ILC’s Draft Articles could not be met. Most importantly, the very same word ‘occurrence’ suggests that the event at stake should happen after the relevant state signs and ratifies the treaty. It is therefore quite obvious that a socio-cultural factor, such as the presence of conservative religious forces in the territory of a state, cannot trigger any argument based on force majeure. To the contrary, claiming that the decision was taken under force majeure would run counter article 26 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of the Treaties (VCLT), which reads as follows: ‘Every treaty in force is binding upon the parties to it and must be performed by them in good faith’.
Furthermore, article 61(1) of the VCLT provides that ‘[a] party may invoke the impossibility of performing a treaty as a ground for terminating or withdrawing from it if the impossibility results from the permanent disappearance or destruction of an object indispensable for the execution of the treaty. If the impossibility is temporary, it may be invoked only as a ground for suspending the operation of the treaty.’ Yet, the ILC has clarified that while force majeure applies to the single obligation arising from the treaty, supervening impossibility results in the suspension of the treaty as a whole.Thus, unless Mali wanted to suspend the treaty as such, this route could not constitute an option.
In the case Association Pour le Progrès et la Défense des Droits des Femmes Maliennes (APDF) and the Institute For Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA) v Republic of Mali, Mali had submitted before the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights that they could not comply with their treaty obligations because of force majeure. In particular, Mali argued that religious forces in the country were resisting the adoption of a new Family Code that would eliminate all discrimination against girls when it came to marriage. This post has investigated the reasons why Mali might have turned into force majeure arguments and concluded that this might depend on the fact that the international instruments that were invoked by the applicants do not include any derogation clause. The Court completely overlooked the arguments based on force majeure and concluded that Mali had violated its treaty obligations arising from CEDAW, the Children’s Charter and the Maputo Protocol. However, the arguments based on force majeure could not be considered admissible, as socio-cultural ‘realities’ of a country could not be seen as unforeseen events, nor could they represent new factors ‘occurring’ after the signature and ratification of the relevant treaties.
Association Pour le Progrès et la Défense des Droits des Femmes Maliennes (APDF) and the Institute For Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA) v Republic of Mali(ACtHPR, 11 May 2018), at 64.
See, also, American Convention on Human Rights, O.A.S.Treaty Series No. 36, 1144 U.N.T.S. 123, entered into force July 18, 1978, reprinted in Basic Documents Pertaining to Human Rights in the Inter-American System, OEA/Ser.L.V/II.82 doc.6 rev.1 at 25 (1992), art 27.
ILC, ‘Draft articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts, with commentaries’ (2001) The Yearbook of the International Law Commission, 2001, vol. II, Part Two, as corrected, at page 71.