Specialists from Uganda, Nigeria, Algeria and Egypt named among 24 members of the Expert Committee of the China International Commercial Court. Former Chief Justice of Uganda Bart Katureebe says he is ‘profoundly excited’ to have been selected.

China’s Supreme People’s Court has appointed four Africans to a panel of international law experts to help deal with legal issues related to Beijing’s global infrastructure development programme known as the Belt & Road Initiative.

The quartet former chief justice of Uganda Bart Katureebe, former attorney general and justice minister of Nigeria Christopher Adebayo Ojo, Algerian judge and former president of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Burundi Fatsah Ouguergouz, and the Director of the Cairo Regional Centre for International Commercial Arbitration in Egypt Ismail Selim were among 24 experts in Chinese and foreign law appointed on Tuesday to the Expert Committee of the China International Commercial Court (CICC) on the adjudication of international commercial disputes.

The committee, which also includes 11 people from mainland China, one each from Hong Kong and Macau, and seven other foreigners, will serve for the next four years.

“I am profoundly excited about this appointment, for it is a high-level committee that will keep me professionally connected,” Katureebe said of his appointment.

The committee mediates on international commercial disputes and provides expert opinion and advice, primarily in relation to the implementation of China’s Belt & Road Plan and settlement of any associated disputes.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s pet trade and infrastructure development plan has funded the construction of expressways, hydropower plants and railways across Africa.

The appointment of the African experts comes as China is facing increasing calls to restructure loans for several countries on the continent, including Angola, Zambia, Ethiopia and Kenya.

Matthew Erie, an associate professor at the University of Oxford and head researcher on a five-year project studying China’s approach to global law and development, said inviting Katureebe and other African experts to join the committee “sends a strong signal that China’s new outward-looking court is inclusive”.

When people thought of China’s increasing global footprint, “they usually think of investment, labour, technology, or soft power, rarely do they think about the law”, he said.

But in recent years China had been engaging in “foreign-related rule-of-law, which touches a number of areas including the harmonisation of commercial law, judicial exchange and cooperation, and building cross-border dispute resolution”, Erie said.

The China-Africa relationship fit that paradigm through legal education and studying abroad, and judicial training, he said.

Erie said there was further thought in the new exchanges that Western courts, arbitration institutions, and law were not in the best interests of China and its trade partners.

“China is trying to offer alternatives to onshore international commercial disputes,” he said. “The problem of China’s new legal institutions face is legitimacy. Time will tell if such tactics incentivise parties to select the CICC in their contracts’ dispute resolution clause.”

Professor Martin Rupiya, innovation and training manager at the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes in Durban, South Africa, said that the appointment of the four Africans would “provide a local face to the dispute resolution formal processes”.

The appointments, by implication, exhibited some deference to African justices, as they were already networked on the African continent, he said.

Jacqueline Musiitwa, a trade and investment lawyer at Hoja Law Group in Johannesburg, said that while there might have been a geopolitical reason for the appointment of a Ugandan, it was not evident.

“He’s a retired respected jurist. I think his expertise will be invaluable,” she said.

“Based on the UK and now China making such appointments, hiring non-nationals could be an increasing trend in international law,” she said, referring to the call made last month by the British government for qualified experts from anywhere in the world to join a team of free-trade agreement arbitrators in the trade ministry.

“International commercial disputes can be very complex and require the knowledge and nuance of another jurisdiction,” Musiitwa said.

“I hope that more well-reputed African jurists get appointed to such expert panels. It is a great opportunity to demonstrate the great depth of knowledge on the continent.”

Michael Kuper, chairman of both the Arbitration Foundation of Southern Africa and China-Africa Joint Arbitration Centre in Johannesburg, said he welcomed the appointments.

“The inclusion of international experts from around the world will strengthen global confidence in the court to the benefit of global trade and investment,” he said.

Susan Finder, a scholar at Peking University Graduate School and member of the international commercial expert committee, said China’s Supreme People’s Court “might be interested in drawing on expertise on various issues from persons with specialised competence in various issues in various parts of the world”.

In picking African experts, “my guess is that the SPC wanted to draw on judicial expertise in Belt & Road countries in particular”, she said.

Author: Jevans Nyabiage, Kenyan Journalist is South China Morning Post’s First Africa Correspondent. Based in Nairobi, Jevans keeps an eye on China-Africa relations and also Chinese investments, ranging from infrastructure to energy and metal, on the continent.