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.

The penalisation of charlatanism and witchcraft practices: An obstacle to the realisation of the rights of women and minors in the Central African Republic

This article has been taken from the Annual Report 2021 of Avocats Sans Frontières.

In the Central African Republic (CAR), the practice of charlatanism and witchcraft is considered a crime under the penal code. The prosecution of suspected “sorcery” practitioners frequently leads to serious human rights violations and systematically impacts women and children. At the Bimbo women’s prison, half of the women in prison are condemned for alleged witchcraft offences. The repression suffered by those accused of witchraft can originate in formal justice but also in popular vindictiveness. People suspected of witchcraft are regularly subjected to humiliation and corporal punishment, sometimes resulting in death.

Such violence is rooted in structural inequalities and patterns of patriarchal domination against women and certain categories of people in vulnerable situations. This type of violence is therefore a consequence of social and cultural norms that hinder the realisation of womens’ and minors’ rights.

ASF’s objective is not to fight against these beliefs that are rooted in Central African society, but to fight against the “witch hunt”. ASF’s action in this regard is mainly based on three axes.

(i) With ASF’s support, civil society organisations run awareness and information sessions on these practices, their propensity to affect certain categories of the population and the disastrous consequences they can have on the lives of these individuals.

(ii) ASF works to provide holistic assistance to people accused of charlatanism and witchcraft. In collaboration with civil society organisations, actors in the criminal justice system, community leaders and NGOs, ASF ensures that people accused of charlatanism and witchcraft are identified as early as possible so that they can benefit from legal assistance from the moment they are taken into custody and during their possible pre-trial detention. It is also essential to assist these people as soon as possible to limit the consequences of such an accusation on their reputation, and therefore on their chances of integrating into the community or providing for themselves and their families.

(iii) ASF noted that the Central African legal arsenal was inadequate to deal with this social phenomenon. The offence does not have a clear definition and a wide range of evidence and clues can be used to prove the offence in court, despite the fact that it is not defined in the penal code. ASF is conducting research to gain a better understanding of the socio-cultural treatment of witchcraft and to eventually develop an advocacy strategy for a more human rights-based approach to these offences.

Birth certificates in CAR: the exception rather than the rule

Bangui, 2 October 2017 – Most Central Africans, especially the youngest, do not possess a birth certificate and thus don’t exist in the eyes of the state. What is the reason for this lack of registration? What are the obstacles to access to the Register of Births, Marriages, and Deaths? What are the consequences? ASF appointed Thierry Vircoulon, an expert on Central Africa, to carry out a study to enable a better understanding of the issue and propose solutions. In an interview, he outlined its main conclusions to us.
  • The rate of birth registration in the Central African Republic (CAR) is one of the lowest in Africa. Why is this so?
Thierry Vircoulon
Thierry Vircoulon: young people who possess a birth certificate are the exception rather than the rule in CAR. The main cause is the impoverishment of both the state and the population. Due to the progressive decline of the Central African state since the Nineties, the territory has undergone a process of administrative collapse. Administrations no longer received the funds necessary to manage the population in the provinces and provide them with basic services. The issuing of official documents was similarly affected. The problem is aggravated by the impoverishment of the population, who must pay the same price as before for official documents, despite being increasingly poor. Even people of status like heads of neighbourhoods don’t register their children because they can’t afford to. For families of limited means, the cost of acquiring a birth certificate is too high. Sometimes, mothers must choose between buying food and paying for a birth certificate. The lack of administration of the population has become a vicious cycle: the administration has to charge for these certificates and documents because it has no money but, because the people have no money, they have less and less access to the administration. Other less significant factors also help to explain the low rate of registration: the complexity of the procedure, the accessibility of local-government services for the rural population, and a lack of capacity in some places.
  • In the study, you explain that children with no birth certificate are still able to attend school. What are the real consequences of the low rate of birth registration for people’s rights?
Fortunately, the administration adjusts its practices to the local realities and exercises flexibility in the application of laws and regulations. Thus, since the majority of children lack a birth certificate, the headmasters of schools do not prevent them from enrolling. The problems emerge later, at the point of enrolling for entrance exams (for moving from primary school to middle school or from middle school to secondary school, and the baccalaureate). A birth certificate is required for these procedures. Not having one can be an obstacle and leads to corrupt practices, fraud (fake documents), etc. Paradoxically, young people rarely have a birth certificate, but they all want one. This demand reflects the general demand for identity documents in CAR. Following the crisis, many people lost their papers, including their birth certificates. Bangui, where neighbourhoods were destroyed and there were significant population displacements, is particularly affected by this phenomenon. Archives of the Registrar of Births, Marriages, and Deaths were destroyed in some places; rebuilding the Register of Births, Marriages, and Deaths is a long and costly process and the government hasn’t issued identity cards since 2013. All the families interviewed in the course of this study understand the administrative and social utility (proof of family tie or line of descent) of birth certificates. The main reasons cited by families for obtaining a birth certificate are enrolling in school and obtaining official recognition of a person. People also know that having no papers makes travelling within the country difficult, because of the countless roadblocks manned by the security forces along the roads.
  • Are the Central African authorities fully aware of the failures of the Register of Births, Marriages, and Deaths, and committed to resolving them?
The transitional government decided to make birth certificates free for children born during the conflict, but this decision was not respected by the local authorities, which usually receive those payments and do not receive enough funding from the government to function properly. Therefore, the policy was not implemented. This is a problem. However, because many young people don’t have a birth certificate, the public authorities exercise tolerance and accept substitute documents, for example educational documents. This problem is not a priority for the government, which is facing security issues and humanitarian crises. The re-registration of the population can only take place once local administrations function better and the issue of the cost of official documents has been resolved.
  • What concrete steps to improve birth registration have you identified?
The simplest and most radical measure would be to make birth certificates free. That was already done and failed completely for the reasons I explained. The financial aspect of the relations between the local authorities/courts and the government would have to be reviewed, and positive financial incentives would need to be created for the various actors. This organisational reform is impossible at present. Therefore, the main measure proposed is to extend the legal deadline for registering newborns from one month (current legal deadline) to six months. This would be an indirect way of reducing the cost of registration, giving families more time to complete the process and thus avoid having to pay for judicial rulings in lieu of birth certificates. The other measure consists of simplifying the procedure within hospitals and making sure that women who have given birth do not have to return several times to the hospital to obtain a birth certificate.
  • What role can international actors play?
Subsidising the distribution of birth certificates is neither a priority, nor a sustainable solution. International actors should include this question on the agenda for administrative reconstruction, and discuss options with the Central African authorities in order to find a sustainable solution. This will definitely require a change to the financial relations between the government and the courts and local authorities, as well as to the regulations.  *** The study Etat civil en République centrafricaine: enjeux et pratiques (“The Register of Births, Marriages, and Deaths in the Central African Republic: Issues and Practices”) was carried out within the framework of the project “Amélioration de l’accès à la justice pour les personnes en situation de vulnérabilité” (“Improvement of access to justice for vulnerable people”), carried out by ASF in CAR since 2015, with the support of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Cover photo: In the Castors maternity hospital in Bangui, birth certificates are issued straight away, unlike in other maternity wards in the country, which require mothers to return twice before receiving the document © T. Vircoulon for ASF
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ASF in Chad: a glance at the past and toward the future

Begin May, the European Union officially renewed its support for ASF’s work in Chad, allowing the organisation to continue its efforts to protect human rights in the country. This provides an opportunity to look back over some results achieved to date and look toward the challenges to come. Chad has been experiencing, for several years, strong social unrest due to a major economic crisis and to the mismanagement of government revenue. The respect of human rights itself is also developing negatively: authorities have infringed on public space and restricted the exercise of freedoms. In addition the population still encounters many obstacles when trying to access to justice. ASF has been present in the country since 2012, with the successive support of the European Union, the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland, and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit. ASF first concentrated on improving social care and legal assistance for minors. More recently, it has devoted itself to supporting civil society organisations mobilised to promote access to justice, such as the Public Interest Law Center (PILC). “For me, access to justice is fundamental to harmonious socio-economic development. It is also an effective way of fighting impunity,”explains Delphine Djiraibe, PILC President. “In Africa, and particularly in Chad, impunity is the worst of the factors that hinder effective exercise of justice, as well as development.“. With the financial and technical support of ASF, PILC targeted women for its interventions, focusing on issues such as gender equality and opportunities and combating gender-based violence. “The initiatives put in place by ASF and its partners in Chad are aimed, on the one hand, at marginalised and vulnerable people, such as women and children, or prisoners, and on the other at lawyers, paralegals, community leaders, representatives of local authorities and members of civil society organisations,”explains Gilles Durdu, ASF’s outgoing country director in Chad. Both activities directed at the citizens, such as awareness-raising activities on the law or free legal counseling, and those on behalf of civil society organisations, such as training on conflict management at the community level, “Have been very successful, often exceeding our expectations.“. ASF also successfully facilitated civil society reflection around the practice of paralegalism, resulting in the realisation of a common statute of paralegals, co-sponsored by 7 organisations. This statute is a real step forward in harmonising the practice of paralegalism in the country and offering all beneficiaries the same guarantees of quality of service. Two ambitious studies were carried out in 2016. Dedicated to the issues and consequences of detention on the prison population and on Chadian society, the first made it possible to initiate a dialogue between the actors relevant to the problem, including the Chadian authorities. The second, focusing on community-based natural resource conflict management, proposes numerous recommendations for the better management of natural resources at the local level and of related conflicts. For a duration of two years, the new ASF project will be implemented in summer 2017 with the support of the European Union, in partnership with the Chadian League for Human Rights, under the title “Support for Citizen initiatives to promote and defend human rights in Chad “. ASF will continue to support civil society organizations working to defend human rights.
Picture © ASF/G. Durdu
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No identity, no rights

Bangui, 15 April 2016 – Without a birth certificate, you can be deprived of a large number of rights. How can you access health care without an identity document? How can you go to school? How can you vote? Most Central Africans, particularly young people, do not exist in the eyes of the State. In response to this problem, Avocats Sans Frontières is organising mobile judicial hearings: members of the court, the public prosecutor’s office and the court registry travel to villages to hand down supplementary rulings on birth certificates.

According to the legislation currently in force in the Central African Republic, it is no longer possible to draw up a birth certificate one month after birth. But this certificate is essential for any citizen, because it provides access to civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, without which the child has no right to attend school, access health services, inherit, own property and so on, and later on in life, no right to vote or to be elected.

Most Central Africans, particularly young people, do not have a valid registry office document. This situation is due to several factors. The first factor is economic: a birth certificate costs 1,500 CFA Francs (approximately EUR 2.5), when the average salary in CAR is 39,000 CFA Francs. Ludovic Kolengue Kaye, ASF Coordinator, explains how: “money is definitely one of the reasons for a low level of registration of births, but lack of information among the population and the complexity of formalities should also be mentioned“. There are also structural malfunctions amongst the registry office departments and competent authorities as a result of the looting, destruction and violence which affected the country in 2012-2013.

To solve this issue, ASF is organising mobile judicial hearings in Bangui (the capital) and Bouar (in the east of the country). This involves rectifying the non-existence of a birth certificate issued within the statutory deadlines, by an additional ruling handed down by a judge who officially recognises a person’s birth. Unlike traditional hearings, mobile judicial hearings are not held in courts and tribunals but instead in the district town hall for example, to make it easier for inhabitants to attend the hearing.

Arsène, Kestia’s father, aged 1, can testify to this: “I was never able to register my child at the town hall, due to lack of funds. I heard about the hearings from my local chief who went through the streets with a megaphone, and so I came along“.

Arsène et sa fille Kestia
Arsène and his daughter Kestia

Members of the court, the public prosecutor’s office, the court registry and the town hall are present. A doctor is also on site to determine the age of the child. ASF pays the costs of the supplementary rulings, equivalent to EUR 15.

My daughter will be able to enrol in school and this will make all the formalities throughout her lifetime much easier“, explains Léana, Esther’s mother.

Léana et sa fille Esther
Léana and her daughter Esther

Every mobile hearing is preceded by awareness-raising, informing the population of the importance of registering births, and informing the local authorities about the procedure and their role in the process of drawing up registry office documents.

To this day, six mobile hearings have already been organised, meaning that 403 children aged between 1 month and 16 years will be able to exercise their rights.

These activities are made possible thanks to the financial support of the European Union delegation and the French Embassy in the Central African Republic.

Photos © ASF/B. Langhendries

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No legal existence equals no rights for Congolese citizens

Lubero, DR Congo, 15 May 2015 – Registration of births – and marriages – is vital for the establishment of citizens’ rights. This is the message that was shared by Avocats Sans Frontières and its partners with more than 6,000 people living in Lubero, North Kivu.

Congolese citizens regularly experience serious violations of their fundamental rights. “Children are particularly vulnerable”, explains Jules Rhuhunemungu, ASF Programme Coordinator. “Many births are not registered within the period specified by law (90 days). So, officially, these children do not exist and are not entitled to a nationality, basic healthcare, an education, to inherit from their parents and so on”. Also, women whose marriages are not registered cannot inherit from their husbands.

ASF and its partners* recently organised a campaign to raise public awareness of these issues in Lubero, North Kivu. More than 6,000 people, mostly women, were informed of their rights and were able to participate in 400 free legal consultations provided by lawyers from the Goma bar association, resulting in 57 babies under 3 months old being issued with birth certificates. The campaign culminated in a session of the Lubero magistrate’s court, at which several families filed requests to regularise the situation of 50 children whose births were not registered within the 90-day period. “This familiarised people with the procedure to be followed if children, or even teenagers and young adults, have not been registered within the specified period”, reports Jules Rhuhunemungu with satisfaction.

“It’s the first time I’ve seen lawyers offering consultations without asking for money!”, laughed one of the mothers attending. “The awareness-raising campaign was amazing because it let people know they could be given birth certificates for their children without paying a penny”, her neighbour added. This kind of activity – allowing people access to a lawyer and to obtain information about their rights – is in high demand. Another session is planned in Masisi later this month.

The local people weren’t the only ones to benefit from the campaign: Lubero register office was also given a new lease of life. A brand new register, sent to Lubero in 2014 by the Department of the Interior, was used for the first time. The registrar had not been using it, even though children were being born every day.

* ASF’s partners in this awareness-raising campaign around the need to register births and marriages are: North Kivu Provincial Department of the Interior, the Goma bar association and the Congolese organisation SODPAD.
Part of the “Uhaki Safi” (“fair justice” in Swahili) programme, supported by the European Union and contributions from Belgium and Sweden.
Pictures © ASF Access to Justice team in Goma

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Over 60 minors finally released!

N’Djamena, 21 August 2013 – Through its project supporting minors, Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF) has secured the release of 64 adolescents held in N’Djamena prison in Chad. Run in partnership with the Chadian NGO Association for the Promotion of Fundamental Rights (APLFT) and financed with the support of the European Union’s Programme to Support Justice in Chad, the project also highlights the difficulties that children and adolescents face in the legal system, and the manifest abuses they suffer.

Ali was only 16 years old when he was transferred to N’Djamena prison for breach of trust: “I was in prison for seven months without seeing the judge even once! I phoned my father. I cried, I couldn’t take it anymore.” Through the ASF project, a lawyer was appointed to help him. It emerged that Ali’s file had simply disappeared when the case was transferred to a different judge. Ali’s lawyer eventually secured his release.

Woman responsible for the Dieu Bénit reception centre for minors © ASF / L. Deramaix
Woman responsible for the Dieu Bénit reception centre for minors © ASF / L. Deramaix

This case illustrates the lack of legal or social structures that fully respect the rights of minors in Chad. “The law is not tough on minors who commit offences. However, because there are not enough shelters, we are forced to send them to prison,” one juvenile court judge admits. Minors are imprisoned with adults. “Here, there’s no reintegration, no education, no training,” says the N’Djamena prison clerk, summarising the situation.

“As part of the project, after examining the files of 86 minors held in N’Djamena prison, we secured the release of three-quarters of them!” reports Coralie de Lhoneux, ASF lawyer in Chad. “Seven other minors were finally tried. The cases of the remaining minors are now being monitored closely by the judge and the state prosecutor.”

Faced with the legal system’s dysfunction, which also clashes with Chad’s pervasive customary laws, civil society organisations attempt to improve the fate of minors in difficulty with the law, but with little expertise and means to do so. “This is why we provided support for shelters and accommodation centres, because these privately-funded initiatives are often the only recourse when a roof has to be found for children in difficulty. These centers have thus been able to take 125 children into their care,” explains Coralie de Lhoneux.

ASF called on the Saint-Louis University in Brussels to draw up a participatory status report on the sector at the start of the project to raise awareness among all players in the sector and to promote collaboration around the project. The population has also been made aware about the issue of children’s rights, and training sessions have been organised for all stakeholders in the sector to improve care of minors: for the police and gendarmerie, traditional authorities, NGOs, accommodation centers and lawyers.

“The legal authorities welcomed the project and ad hoc assistance was provided through the project. The challenge now is to see whether the efforts undertaken will be continued by local players so that these young people are properly cared for,” says Coralie de Lhoneux.

Cover photo: Yalna reception centre for minors © ASF / L. Deramaix

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Better Aid for Chadian Youth

N’Djamena, Chad – August 21, 2012.  Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF), in partnership with the local NGO APLFT (Association pour la Promotion des Libertés Fondamentales au Tchad) launched a project to improve the support for minors in N’Djamena. This project will reinforce the capacities of the different actors in the related social and legal spheres. Awareness campaigns are being organised for both the population and the authorities in order to make the rights of minors better known and recognised.

Having emerged from different wars and political troubles that have shaken the country until 2008, Chad is in full reconstruction mode. The difficulties are numerous, notably in the social domain. Aid for youth in particular faces significant challenges: State structures have been implemented but are not operational; the parents, often poor, receive no support for their children’s education; and social and/or legal services lack resources and are ineffective.

Northeastern Chad, near the border with North Darfur, 2008 © Michael Von Bergen

Children are the first victims of these shortcomings. Many are neglected or abandoned. “An incalculable number of minors are subjected to mistreatment and to worse forms of exploitation,” testifies Coralie de Lhoneux, ASF’s legal expert in Chad. “No measures are taken by the government, whether it comes to the aid for these minors or to pursue those who mistreated them.” Minors in conflict with the law are regularly sent to prison without having the opportunity to consult a lawyer. They stay in prolonged pre-trial detention or suffer heavy sentences, and are mixed with adults and kept in unsuitable prison conditions. They do not receive any measure of support or education, however indispensable these may be to their rehabilitation.

Despite the official declarations of intent, support for troubled minors remains problematic. For several years, and despite limited resources, civil society NGOs have taken on the provision of social and legal aid to vulnerable populations, including children.

Financed by the European Union, ASF’s project started in April of 2012 with training for minor protection centres, legal aid NGOs, and APLFT lawyers. Meanwhile, a team of lawyers in charge of supporting and defending minors in conflict with the law is being implemented under ASF’s supervision. These same lawyers will participate in exchange workshops with the magistrates in order to together improve the legal monitoring of minors.

Awareness campaigns aimed at a wide audience and involving traditional leaders and police and gendarmerie forces are also being organised.

Finally, ASF is advocating with the relevant ministries for a reinforcement of the structures of support and shelter, as well as for effective monitoring of minors in trouble with the law.

“Shelters, legal aid NGOs, social workers, juvenile judges, lawyers, public authorities, police forces, traditional leaders…all must work together. The success of the project depends on the functional synergies of all parties concerned,” explains de Lhoneux.

“In the end, our work deals with respect for national and international legislation. Even if they are at times incomplete, the existing texts must be the basis of all decisions. Their practical implementation and a public awareness are the first steps in the long process of improving the social and legal situation of Chadian minors. It is imperative that their rights and their welfare be respected,” concludes de Lhoneux.

Cover picture: Chad 2012 © Tom Stevens

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