The Tribunal was established in 1992 as an institution of the treaty establishing the Southern Africa Development Community’s (SADC) and was sworn in November 2005. By Article 4 of that treaty, SADC and its member states are obliged to act in accordance with the principles of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. This is the basis of the SADC Tribunal’s interpretation of its own role. The Tribunal’s seat is Windhoek, Namibia.
In the period of actual existence, from 2005 until 2012, the court had jurisdiction over disputes between SADC member states – as well as on disputes between legal or natural persons and member states. However, in order for a person to bring a case before the court, all internal legal remedies of the member state concerned had to be exhausted.
In this period, it was possible for individuals to bring a case against another person under Community law directly to the Tribunal if the other party so agreed. Persons were able to sue the Community over the legality, interpretation or application of Community law. From 2005 to 2012 no state, but twelve individuals had approached the court.
The Tribunal’s first verdict at the end of 2008 was already a landmark case. Zimbabwe had enforced a highly controversial land redistribution policy in the early 1990s. The Tribunal decided that the government’s seizure of land owned by white farmers was indirect or "de facto" discrimination and therefore unconstitutional – and that the plaintiffs were entitled to compensation (Mike Campbell (Pvt) Ltd and Others v Republic of Zimbabwe).
Only a month after a similar ruling in 2010 (Louis Karel Fick & Others v Republic of Zimbabwe) a SADC summit was held, which then ordered to “review of the role, responsibilities and terms of reference of the SADC Tribunal”. Since 2012, the Tribunal’s role has been reduced to jurisdiction over disputes between SADC member states, which deprives the Tribunals powers to a great extent and makes complaints by citizens against their governments impossible. This is the first time globally that an international instrument for individual complaints against human rights violations has been abolished.