ASF’s annual report is available!

The Avocats Sans Frontières team is delighted to present its latest annual report.

We have come a long way since ASF was founded in 1992 by a group of Belgian lawyers. Over these 30 years, hundreds of people have contributed to making the organisation what it is today: a militant organisation active in a dozen countries, working to promote access to justice and the rule of law based on human rights, in close collaboration with local actors.

These thirty years of action, the local roots we have developed and the links we have forged with human rights defenders from the four corners of the world give us a great deal of strength and confidence as we look to the future and continue to deploy impactful action in the service of populations in vulnerable situations (women, children, the LGBTQI+ community, ethnic minorities, people in detention, people in migration, etc.).

But the challenges are many. All over the world, civil society organisations and human rights defenders are faced with worrying developments and trends: the rise of authoritarianism, the shrinking of civic space, growing public distrust of institutions, heightened social tensions, etc.

Defenders of human rights and access to justice have to work in contexts that are increasingly hostile to them. The very notions of human rights and the rule of law are being called into question. Activists, lawyers and journalists working to defend the fundamental rights of populations in vulnerable situations are increasingly systematically targeted by repressive policies.

Every page of this report bears witness to the vigour of the flame that drives those who are committed to upholding human rights at the very heart of our societies, at the risk and peril of their own freedom. This report is a tribute to each and every one of them.

Partners’ profiles 4/4 : The Networks of Observers

Avocats Sans Frontières, active in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 2002, would not be able to act without its partners. It is for this reason that, today, we wanted to give voice to them. These men and women told us about their everyday life, their realities and their convictions. Through a series of profiles, you can meet these figures who represent the Diocesan Commission for Justice and Peace in Boma, the Congolese League against Corruption and the Networks of Observers.

They are all working on the project, “Putting the interests of local populations at the heart of natural resource management: transparency, accountability and protection of rights,” in the province of Kongo Central and, more specifically, in the coastal zone of Muanda (more information here).

Thanks to this project, ASF has helped create and revitalise networks of observers. They are independent of ASF, they exist and are managed autonomously by their members. ASF and these networks work together to empower populations impacted by the activities of extractive companies.

These networks are made up of representatives of villages/communities nominated by the communities because they are particularly committed and voluntary. Their goal is to ensure the participation of local populations in natural resource management processes and to ensure that the activities and/or processes are transparent and respectful of human rights. To achieve these objectives, the members of the network continuously monitor, collect and document the potential cases of corrupt practices and various violations perpetrated by private and/or public actors involved in the exploitation of natural resources within their villages. Based on collected, proven and verified data, network members engage in processes of dialogue and consultation with the local authorities, representatives of the concerned populations and the bearers of responsibility with a view of promoting participatory governance in the management of natural resources.

Today, we will meet members of the networks in the region of Muanda. We asked them all the same question: Can you introduce yourself in a few words and explain to us why you are part of a network of observers?

Jeanne* : I am involved for the girls and mothers of my village.

I live in the village of Muanda. I run a business and I work with “tidewomen,” women who live with the tide, who process the caught fish. In my cooperative, I employ 3 men and 28 women. We make fresh fish, salted fish and smoked fish… It’s hard to be a woman and to be the head of a business, you need to change your way of working and adapt a lot. We have a lot of problems in the domain of the processing of fishery products. We don’t really have a selling point, sometimes we work and it is impossible to sell, and since we don’t have the means to conserve, well…it is hard. But it is very important that women become strong and run businesses.

Today, in Congo, mothers are not considered, whereas all of us, women, should be involved everywhere, in villages, in societies, in gatherings, it is important. And that is why I accepted to become an observer in my network when the traditional leaders suggested me. I chose to defend the interest of my community, and especially those of all the girls and mothers.

François* : I am involved for the fishers.

Fishing used to be the most accessible occupation. Our communities still live mainly from agriculture and fishing today. We practice artisanal fishing, in small boats, with rods and nets. But fishing is becoming increasingly harder… Sometimes, companies’ boats damage our nets whilst they are sailing. Even if we try to report these incidents the delays are endless and, in the meantime, people can’t fish anymore because there is a cost to repair the equipment. Moreover, even when we receive the financial compensations, the money goes through a very complicated system. There are gaps in this system and money often disappears between the initial transfer and us receiving it.

Another problem is the security zones. The companies who exploit the natural resources of the sea have marked out in which we are no longer allowed to enter or fish. Except there were species that we used to fish in these zones, and since we no longer have access, we have to go further into the ocean. This means the risks and costs are higher because the waves are stronger, and we need to pay for stronger boats. Sometimes there are dead fish in our nets and the water does not smell good. And I could also talk about the problems with foreign boats that come to fish in large quantities and which deplete all of the fish… So, as I am part of the fishing cooperative, I agreed to represent my village in the network, so that I could help the villagers continue to make a living from their activities, especially the fishermen.

Dominique* : I am involved for our future, for our land.

I’ve witnessed a lot, and that’s why I immediately agreed to be part of my village network when I was elected. I can give you an example. In the past, flares – systems for burning the gases released during the extraction of crude oil – were large pipes that went into the sky and burned all the time. Today, flares are at ground level, or even below, since they are installed in deliberately dug holes. The problem is that, when it rains, the holes fill up with water and the water will extinguish the burning gas. Then this gas will dissolve in the water and when the water overflows from the hole, all this mixture will flow into our rivers and our fields. So, we need to pay close attention and report quickly when a flare is flooded, otherwise there will be a lot of damage to the nature.

Sometimes, there are also leakages of crude oil, in rivers, in fields…we need to be watchful of that too. First of all, you have to prevent a leak, then the procedure to get repairs for the damage is very complicated and, if you are not careful, a lot of money is lost along the way. So being a network member means that the villagers can call me when they have problems or questions, and I can guide them, since I know the rules and procedures well. We monitor what is going on around us, to protect our fields, our rivers, our nature and our future, for ourselves and so that our children can also benefit from our fertile fields and our rivers full of fish.

Before, I used to defend my community, but I didn’t have much knowledge. Thanks to Avocats Sans Frontières and to the training courses offered, we no longer only talk about ‘natural resources,’ we go further into the subject. I only knew a little about the domain of hydrocarbons, but today I know it well, I understand my rights, and I also understand what is at stake in the forests, rivers and fields…I feel more and more capable of representing and supporting the people of my village, and that makes me happy, for me, for them, for our land.

*Observers’ names have been changed in ordre to respect their anonymity.

The overall objective of the project is to contribute to the transparent management of natural resources in accordance with human rights. More specifically, it aims to support the involvement and participation of concerned populations in order to (i) ensure the transparency of natural resource management processes and the fight against corrupt practices and (ii) protect and realise their rights in this framework.

The project contributes to the emergence of the essential conditions for an inclusive, sustainable and human rights-based development. It does so by empowering local populations so that they are fully able to play a role in the natural resource management processes, as well as accompanying them in order to guarantee the protection of their rights.

Photos and interview: Camille Burlet

  Continue reading “Partners’ profiles 4/4 : The Networks of Observers”

Access to justice in Chad: civil society is mobilising itself

N’Djamena, 7 December 2015  – Despite justice reforms undertaken in recent years, the population of Chad still encounters numerous obstacles when trying to obtain access to justice. Given this situation, civil society organisations (CSOs) are taking action and providing legal advice and assistance. Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF) is supporting three of these CSOs in their efforts to protect human rights.

The population of Chad knows very little about its rights, especially outside of towns. Customary rules are still very influential. There are very few lawyers (174 lawyers for a population of 11 million inhabitants). These are almost all based in the capital N’Djamena, so the majority of Chadians are not able to make use of their expertise to assert their rights.

Given this situation, CSOs have been taking action for a number of years now. “We do the work of the public services that are almost non-existent: we make citizens more aware of their rights and offer them free legal advice, legal assistance and mediation services”, explains Marthe Dorkagoum. This magistrate is a member of the executive office and charged with public relations for the AFJT (l’Association des Femmes Juristes du Tchad – Association of Women Lawyers in Chad), one of three CSO partners in the ASF project “Improving access to justice for persons in vulnerable situations in Chad”.

The needs are enormous. “Our lawyers and paralegals take care of the disenfranchised, especially women who do not know their rights in the area of inheritance or who are subject to serious domestic violence”, shares Oyal Ngarassal, who presides over another CSO partner , the Public Interest Law Center (PILC). “It comes to a point where these people have had enough of suffering and take the step of coming to see us so they can defend themselves and assert their rights.”

Within the framework of the project, ASF gives technical support to the CSOs, in particular via training workshops and exchanges. Recently, the three partner organisations participated in a workshop dedicated to communication techniques. “How do you explain to the husbands that we are not there to turn their wives against them, but to make sure that their basic rights are being respected?” Yes, it is crucial to be able to communicate well in our line of work”, says Oyal Ngarassal. This is confirmed by Marthe Dorkagoum: “Not only the people, but also the local authorities need to have a better understanding of what it is that we do.”

The Vice President of the APLFT (Association pour la Promotion des Libertés Fondamentales au Tchad – Association for the Promotion of Fundamental Freedoms in Chad), Ali Mbodou, acknowledges the value of these workshops. “For us, it’s a plus. It’s a sharing of experiences.”

Apart from this technical support, ASF provides financial support that will enable the CSOs to provide legal advice and judicial assistance services (AJJ) to the population – in particular to women, children and persons in detention.

The AFJT,  the APLFT and the PILC carry out complementary activities and cover different geographical areas. Together, they make up more than 500 lawyers and paralegals. Within the framework of the ASF project 30,000 people have already been made aware of their rights, 2,000 people have received legal advice and 200 people have benefited from the help of a lawyer.

The ASF project “Improving access to justice for persons in vulnerable situations in Chad”, continues until May 2016, with financial help from the European Union.

Pictures: Three civil society organisations in Chad are mobilising to guarantee that the population receives legal aid services. Cover picture (left to right): Oyal Ngarassal from the Public Interest Law Center, Ali Mbodou from l’Association pour la Promotion des Libertés Fondamentales au Tchad (Promotion of the Fundamental Freedoms in Chad) and Marthe Dorkagoum from l’Association des Femmes Juristes du Tchad (Women Lawyers’ Association of Chad). N’Djamena, November 2015 © ASF/G. Van Moortel

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ASF partnerships: the cornerstone of sustainable change

Brussels/Bujumbura, 1 July 2015 – Against the backdrop of an extremely serious political crisis, ASF and its partners continue working to ensure access to justice for all in Burundi. ASF and the bar association at Bujumbura Court of Appeal have recently signed an agreement renewing and shaping their partnership up to 2021. The signing of this agreement symbolises the spirit of complementarity underlying the relationship between ASF and its partners in the countries where it is active.

The President’s announcement that he intends to stand in the presidential elections on 15 July has thrown Burundi into a deep political crisis during the last few weeks. However, this exceptional situation does not signal an end to the population’s need for access to justice – far from it.

ASF and the bar association at Bujumbura Court of Appeal have just signed an agreement creating the framework for a special partnership aimed at improving access to justice for all in Burundi.

Our partnership is based on a spirit of independence from governments and political groups, together with mutual respect for the diversity of cultures, values, beliefs and opinions“, explains Céline Lemmel, ASF Head of Mission in Burundi.

This agreement formalises more than ten years’ cooperation in providing services to ensure better access to justice. “It’s much more than a paper agreement. Specifically, ASF and the bar association set up free legal consultation and judicial assistance services for those who are particularly vulnerable in Burundi“, according to the Head of Mission. In 2014-2015, more than 7,700 people were able to receive assistance enabling them to exercise their rights.

For Mr Salvator Kiyuku, president of the bar association at Bujumbura Court of Appeal, this partnership is above all a matter of credibility: “ASF has extensive international expertise in the area of training and legal assistance. So, they are a reliable partner and sharing this experience saves us a lot of time“.

Despite the extremely tense situation in Bujumbura in the run-up to elections, in some of the country’s provinces both partners are pressing ahead with their efforts to uphold the rights of all those seeking justice.

In Burundi, as in other countries, ASF and its different partners – bar associations, civil society organisations and public institutions – work together on an equal footing to achieve specific goals.

We see the partnership as a relationship of trust and complementarity. ASF complements our skills, enabling us to fulfil our mission to help people seeking justice“, confirms Mr Kiyuku.

For the 2014-2015 period, ASF has ongoing partnerships with 30 local organisations in twelve countries where it is active. All of these agreements are based on the principle of mutual support between ASF and its partners – helping to bring about sustainable change in order to achieve accessible, effective and efficient justice.

Picture: ASF and the bar association at Bujumbura Court of Appeal : a sustainable partnership. © ASF 2015

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Myanmar: The “Pro Bonos” in action

Myanmar, 27 April 2015 – The Rule of Law Centres Pilot Project supported by UNDP has come to an end. The project aimed at providing training on local justice issues to legal professionals and civil society and at encouraging them to use rule of law principles into their work. Seven legal experts, members of ASF’s International Legal Network (ILN), volunteered pro bono services to the project.

Seven ILN members – the “Pro Bonos” as they were fondly referred to by the project team – had the opportunity to share the experience of implementing the Rule of Law Centres Pilot Project in Myanmar. Hailing from different jurisdictions such as the United-States, the United Kingdom, Australia and France, the ILN members shared their expertise in different fields such as Criminal, Family, Administrative and International Law and Human Rights. They all brought their knowledge and goodwill to help the Project Team, composed of international and national trainers, in designing curriculum and developing training modules and assisting in community outreach activities.

On my first day, I was tasked with working with a national trainer, Nway Nway, to review the curriculum she had drafted” tells Larissa Dinsmoor, US Attorney of the California Bar Association (cover picture). “We sat across from each other discussing how the information would be taught to others. Even though we had just met, there was an ease and mutual respect between us. I learned from her and she learned from me and finally, our product was solid”. Larissa was based in Lashio, a multi-ethnic city in Northeastern Myanmar. As it was a pilot project and the duration was short, there was immense pressure to draft curriculum and produce high quality training materials. As Larissa recalls, “We all worked together appreciating each other’s individual experience, knowledge and vision. In the end, the Myanmar and international lawyers merged into one indistinguishable force that made a difference” remarks Larisa. But she confides in us with a wink: “What I remember most is the laughter. Despite the tireless hours of work spent designing, editing and implementing curriculum, the Rule of Law team always managed to crack a joke or flash a smile. In this atmosphere, it was easy to make relationships.”

Claire Fenton-Glynn, membre de l'ILN © ASF
ILN member Claire Fenton-Glynn © ASF

An important aspect of the project was to ensure that the Myanmar team and the participants would engage critically in the process. For that reason, the content and the activities were discussed each week, by the international trainers together with the national trainers. Claire Fenton-Glynn (picture) is Lecturer in Law at King’s College, London. She spent one month in Mandalay, the second-largest city of the country. She particularly appreciated this methodology. “In this way, the national trainers, as well as the participants themselves, could take ownership of the process, and we could act as facilitators for their learning, rather than dictating it”, Claire explains.

Claire Fenton-Glynn concludes: “To see the progress made through the development of analytical skills, and know the difference it will make to the way people engage with law, and life, in the future, was particularly significant and crucial in a country that is only just starting to emerge from years of military dictatorship”.

Launched in 2010, the ILN today brings together over one thousand legal professionals from all over the world who are committed to support ASF’s international programs and its missions in the field.

See also the previous story on the Myanmar Rule of Law Project.

Cover picture: Larissa Dinsmoor, US Attorney of the California Bar Association, was one of the seven ILN members involved in the project © ASF

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Rule of Law Education Leading to Social Justice in Myanmar

Lashio, Shan State, Myanmar, 17 February 2015 – The need for justice education in a country just emerging from more than 50 years of military dictatorship is undoubted. “Rule of law” is a prevalent but rarely understood term here. ASF trainers and other partners provide training in the framework of a UNDP-funded Rule of Law Centre Pilot Project.

“How is this going to be sustainable?” asked Ji Mai (picture) at the first team meeting of the Project in Lashio, a multi-ethnic city in Northeastern Myanmar, not far from the Chinese border. As a Kachin ethnic group community activist and now the Project Administrator, she appreciated the work that ASF trainers Jake Stevens and Helen Yandell, volunteering law professionals from all over the world and other international and Myanmar national partners had put into the three-month long curriculum that integrated rule of law principles, Myanmar law, and skills development. But she wanted to make sure that the curriculum, and the related community forums aimed at identifying relevant legal issues, would lead to substantive change.

 Ji Mai (Community activist) and Soe Moe Kyaw (a former HIV educator) both attended the project's workshops as project staff © Jake Stevens
Ji Mai (Community activist) and Soe Moe Kyaw (a former HIV educator) both attended the project’s workshops as project staff © Jake Stevens

Since then the approximately 80 lawyers and civil society representatives, in Lashio and in the much larger city of Mandalay, have grappled with this and other questions. The interactive methodologies of the workshop are designed to engage the participants in the content, but also to develop their analytical abilities. This was initially challenging for all concerned, due to the poor quality of the Myanmar education system and the legacy of 50 years of military rule. Project Manager Soe Moe Kyaw (picture), a former HIV educator, remarked that, “We are only used to listening to lectures. Asking and answering questions can seem very aggressive to us.” But many participants report an interest in incorporating the methodologies in their own work, be it civil society trainings or mentoring new lawyers. They also expressed great appreciation for the content, such as Alternative Dispute Resolution, Equality Before the Law, and Mock Trial.

In the workshops, the public forums and during project outreach meetings, many express a wish to move beyond internal community organizing and to engage governmental actors. Sai Kyaw Tun, from Meikswe Myanmar (a health and education civil society organization), remarked, “we must have more workshops like these in other communities so that people understand their rights. But we must also have joint forums with police, judges and governmental officials so that we understand each other better.” Similarly leaders of local LGBT organizations requested help designing strategies that would inform the public and the government of their concerns without triggering another police crack-down on their members. As initially planned the workshops were to include those governmental actors in the pilot, and there is hope that they will join in future iterations.

The current Rule of Law Project is actually two related and complementary activities: the 3-month long 42 session workshop series and open-ended community forums. In Lashio the forum topics  include combatting discrimination, expanding community legal education, and addressing drug addiction. The synergy between the two pillars of the project has been obvious. Participants are taking their new-found skill and knowledge into their communities and workplaces to apply Rule of Law Principles in everyday life at this crucial time in the development of Myanmar.

Coverpicture: ASF consultants and other partners provide training in the framework of a UNDP-funded Rule of Law Workshop Project © Jake Stevens

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Transitional justice in Burundi: space for victims

Bujumbura, 21 January 2015 – ASF (Avocats Sans Frontières) welcomes the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as an important step in the process of punishing international crimes committed in Burundi in the past. ASF nevertheless calls for certain conditions crucial to the proper functioning of the transitional justice process to be respected.

Established by the Arusha agreements for peace and national reconciliation in Burundi signed in 2000 by the different sides in the Burundi conflict, a decisive step forward in implementing transitional justice mechanisms was taken in Burundi on 10 December: the President of Burundi named the 11 commissioners of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The Commission will have the power to investigate and establish the truth behind serious human rights violations committed in Burundi, to qualify these crimes, publish lists of victims, propose a programme of reparation and institutional reform that also rewrites the history of Burundi. With a four-year mandate, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has the task of carrying out these difficult and sensitive missions, tracing events that stretch over almost five decades from 1962 to 2008.

“This is an important step on the long road to reconciliation between the different segments in Burundi society. The profile of most of the 11 commissioners is an asset that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission can count on to help it realise its mission in a manner that satisfies the people of Burundi”, believes Adrien Nifasha, ASF Coordinator in Burundi for the international and transitional justice project CROSSROADS.

Nevertheless, ASF lists a series of preliminary conditions that are essential to ensuring the work of the Commission has validity. The Commission must remain independent, impartial and ensure the safety of its commissioners. Victims, witnesses and defendants must be kept fully informed of the work of the Commission, which must also be allowed to carry out its work and financial management in an autonomous manner. Adrien Nifasha adds that “the right to the truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, the very cornerstones of transitional justice, must be respected in Burundi”.

ASF is ready to support the work of the Commission in its fields of expertise: representing victims and defendants, protecting victims and witnesses, supplying technical support for drafting procedural rules and capacity-building for the commissioners, justice professionals and civil society in the area of transitional justice.

“Nevertheless, we will only provide our support if the Commission’s preparations and work respect victims’ and defendants’ rights”, stated the project coordinator.

CROSSROADS is a project initiated by ASF and its partners in six countries, Burundi, Colombia, Guatemala, Nepal, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which are engaged in building international criminal justice. This project is being financed by the European Union.

Picture: Investigate and establish the truth about the human rights violations committed in Burundi from 1962 to 2008 is one of the difficult missions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission © 2014 Local Voices

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The Kalima project: Defending freedom of expression

Rabat (Morocco), 8 August 2014 – Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF) launches its training and awareness-raising programme as part of the project for the promotion of freedom of expression and the protection of persons such as journalists and bloggers. This project, known as Kalima, is taking place in Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, in a region which is undergoing a significant political transition. It also marks the opening of an ASF office in Morocco.

While government authorities in Tunisia and Morocco respect the right of freedom of expression more than in the past, the protection of those directly involved in this freedom is not always guaranteed. In Egypt, the situation is more dramatic, in particular for journalists who are subjected to pressures and threats, most notably in the name of the fight against terrorism. Whether they are bloggers, lawyers, journalists or human rights defenders, the aim of the Kalima project is specifically to support these parties in their commitment to the protection and promotion of freedom of expression.

“We called the project Kalima because this Arabic word means both speech and word. It plays on the two freedoms which are the object of this project: freedom of speechor expression, and freedom of the press”, explains Bahia Zrikem, the ASF representative based in Rabat.

Specifically, Kalima is being implemented with partners from Moroccan, Tunisian and Egyptian civil society. It is about supporting, protecting and strengthening the rights of any person or organisation that expresses an opinion, testifies or disseminates information in a peaceful and independent manner, including through the media.

Activities to improve the skills and competencies of lawyers in relation to the protection and promotion of freedom of expression will be organised. In collaboration with its partners, ASF is also hoping to create a regional platform for discussion and advocacy, bringing together the stakeholders involved in the promotion of the right to freedom of expression in the three countries concerned.

Finally, Bahia Zrikem notes that “persons who are the victims of actions intended to impede their freedom to express themselves can contact us. We work closely with lawyers and human rights organisations in order to provide legal protection to those who request it, whether that is legal assistance or even observing the trial”.

Through the Kalima project, ASF will be sharing its expertise in relation to access to justice with local NGOs, lawyers and journalists to enable them to make use of the legal framework available. The aim is to protect and expand freedom of expression in a sustainable way in Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia.

The training programme and the awareness-raising workshops began last June in Rabat. This activity, which was organised in collaboration with the Moroccan association ADALA, allowed 25 Moroccan journalists and lawyers to acquire a better understanding of defamation charges which can be used to restrict freedom of expression. The mission of ADALA (an Arabic word meaning justice) is to help to promote the right to a fair trial, and in particular the independence of the judiciary. Continue reading “The Kalima project: Defending freedom of expression”

Nepalese women lawyers improve knowledge of medico-legal techniques

Kathmandu – Courts dealing with criminal cases take forensic matters such as DNA profiling, post-mortem reports, and finger prints as first hand or direct evidence. Lawyers must understand these technical subjects which can play a crucial role in court decision-making. A training organised by Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF), in cooperation with the Nepal Bar Association and the Women Lawyer’s Committee of the Supreme Court Bar Association, supports women lawyers to improve their practice, especially in cases of women’s rights violations.

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Medical-legal terms and practice need to be understood by lawyers, ASF training, Kathmandu, August 2013 © ASF

Medico-legal terminology, experts’ writing and other forensic actions used by doctors and experts in cases and trials are often difficult for lawyers and judges to understand. Yet, issues raised in these reports can be crucial in deciding the case. “Scientific evidence is important in crime investigation. Proving or disproving allegations against an accused, like DNA profiling, can help identify potential suspects”, explains Advocate Biswo Jit Khadka, ASF Program Officer in Kathmandu. “In some cases, only scientific evidence can reveal the truth. This is why the different stakeholders – including lawyers – must be able to understand this type of evidence.”

The ASF mission in Nepal is focused on improving access to justice for people in vulnerable situations, on building capacity of legal service providers, such as lawyers, and ensuring effective and quality legal aid services. In Nepal, it is particularly difficult for women lawyers to get training in medico-legal terms and practice, partly because of nepotism and favouritism but also because of gender discrimination in the selection of participants. “Yet, women lawyers need to improve their understanding in these matters, especially because they are often the ones to deal with the high number of women’s rights violations such as sexual harassment, witchcraft hunting, domestic violence, homicide, suicide and rape, and other forms of violence and discrimination against women.”- Advocate Sunil Kumar Pokharel, Secretary General of Nepal Bar Association.

This is why ASF, in cooperation with the Nepal Bar Association and the Women Lawyer’s Committee of the Supreme Court Bar Association, organised a one-day training session in Kathmandu at the end of August on the “Medico-Legal Role in Effective Legal Aid” geared toward practicing women lawyers. Some 50 woman lawyers representing various Bar Associations in the country participated in this training, which included key medico-legal experts and  forensic scientists.

“This training was very useful for me as I defend women’s rights. Currently, I am dealing with a case of rape and need to understand how I can best use evidence collection and results to strengthen my legal arguments”, said Advocate Ms. Radha Sigdel, member of the Kathmandu District Court Bar Association.

“By improving their knowledge in forensic sciences, we aim to support these lawyers in their work defending and protecting women and their rights”, concludes the ASF Program Officer Biswo Jit Khadka.

Cover photo: these women lawyers will improve their practice in cases of women’s rights violations, Kathmandu, August 2013 © ASF

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Looking for pro bono legal experts

Brussels, 2 September 2013 – The Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF) International Legal Network (ILN) provides an opportunity for lawyers to volunteer from time to time in support of vulnerable populations in need of legal and judicial assistance. To date however, despite its 800 members, this network lacks professionals in specialised areas of law such as international criminal justice and the organisation of legal aid services.

Julie Goffin is a lawyer with the Brussels French-speaking Bar association and ILN member. Her commitment to human rights is not new. “My parents were already engaged in this field. As a student expert, I attended the negotiations during the adoption of the Rome Statute, the founding treaty of the International Criminal Court (ICC). That was in 1998 … in Rome,” she recalls. Since then, Ms. Goffin has consolidated her experience in foreign law, humanitarian law and in particular international criminal law. She is also part of the legal team representing some of the victims in the Katanga and Ngudjolo cases, both accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes in the DR Congo, at the ICC.

Training workshop on international criminal justice in Bukavu, June 2013 © ASF / G. Van Moortel

It is therefore natural that ASF sought her support to conduct a training workshop on international criminal justice and the Rome Statute system. This took place last June in Bukavu, a Congolese town bordering Rwanda. The training’s objective was to strengthen the capacity of lawyer members of the ASF pool in the DR Congo in the areas of professional practice and strategic action. “It is essential to promote the exchange of experiences among lawyers responsible for assisting or representing victims of serious human rights violations and international crimes. During the five days of training, I found my Congolese colleagues very open and committed to the fight against impunity,” she recounts.

Created in 2010, the ILN highlights the essential role of international lawyers alongside their colleagues working in countries where the rule of law has not yet been achieved. With the increasing number of ASF activities focused on building the capacity of lawyers, the Network quickly became a key source of expertise. “Since its inception, members of the ILN have made no less than 86 interventions, totaling 620 workdays. This effort has greatly contributed to strengthening the capacity of local players,” says Catherine Lalonde, ILN Coordinator.

“Yet today we lack members in areas such as representation in international criminal justice, the international framework of economic and social rights, and the treatment of corruption cases,” Lalonde continues. “Candidates with profiles of judges, prosecutors, and professors, or skilled in organising legal aid services are also particularly requested.”

After a strong development phase, the ILN network faces a new challenge: how to best meet the needs identified through ASF projects, in order to increase the efficiency and quality of the services it offers to the most vulnerable populations? For her part, Julie Goffin has come out enriched from her training mission in Bukavu: “Whether it is in the DR Congo or elsewhere, our colleagues give us a lesson in courage because they are the ones who take all the risks. Sharing our expertise with them is to show solidarity.”

For more information on ILN

Cover photo: “Sharing our expertise is to show solidarity.” Julie Goffin, laywer and member of the ILN; Bukavu (DRC), 2013 © ASF / G. Van Moortel

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