PUBLISHED:April 26, 2011

Helfer launches project on human rights in West Africa

Professor Laurence R. Helfer has launched a new research project on the human rights case law of a little-known international court in West Africa.

In March, Helfer, the Harry R. Chadwick, Sr. Professor of Law, took a weeklong research trip to Abuja, the capitol of Nigeria and the headquarters of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). He met with judges, lawyers, government officials, and international NGOs involved with the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice (CCJ), which is rapidly becoming a focal point for human rights advocacy in West Africa.

“In 2005, the ECOWAS member states gave this relatively new international court jurisdiction over human rights claims,” he said. “Individuals can file complaints directly with the CCJ, including against their own governments. Since 2005, there has been a large increase in the number of human rights cases filed with the court, which has issued several path breaking rulings relating to issues such as slavery, torture, and the right to education. Helfer and Northwestern University political science professor Karen J. Alter are trying to determine “what influence, if any, the court is having in the region, and the modes and mechanisms of that influence.”

Helfer noted that the research on ECOWAS follows naturally from his and Alter’s multi-stage inquiry into the Andean Community legal system and the Andean Tribunal of Justice. “That project was about how a particular international court in one sub-region of South America had become active and apparently effective in one specific area — intellectual property,” he said. “The Andean and ECOWAS projects reflect my long-held interest in the broad question of how international institutions -- including international courts — can help build the domestic rule of law.