This 11th ExPEERience Talk will be devoted to the Campaign for the Decriminalisation of Poverty, Status and Activism. Several of its members will present its history and how it operates. They will discuss the challenges encountered and the opportunities presented by the networking of a multiplicity of actors to tackle a global and systemic issue of such magnitude.
In many countries, criminal procedure, penal codes and policing policies continue to reflect a colonial legacy. Offences dating from the colonial era, such as vagrancy, begging or disorderly conduct, are commonly used against people already in a vulnerable or marginalised situationt (homeless people, people with disabilities, drug users, LGBTIQ+ people, sex workers, migrants, etc.), with the sole aim of criminalising what they represent in society rather than the offences they have committed. Many countries are also witnessing a narrowing of civic space and the use of criminal law to repress activism and stifle dissent. These phenomena are deeply rooted in the legislation, institutions and practices of States around the world.
During this ExPEERience Talk, speakers from several of the campaign’s member organisations will illustrate the very real consequences of these repressive laws and practices for civil society and the general public. They will also talk about the various actions undertaken as part of the campaign: joint research, litigation and lobbying actions before national and international institutions.
To date, the campaign is supported by some fifty civil society organisations from many countries. Its ambition is to create the conditions for a global change in criminal and social laws, policies and practices by adopting a transnational and multisectoral strategy.
Khayem Chemli – Head of advocacy at ASF – Euromed region (moderator)
Soheila Comninos – Senior program manager at Open Society Foundations
Arnaud Dandoy – Research & Learning Manager at ASF – Euromed region
The next ExPEERience Talk (webinar) organised by ASF and its Justice ExPEERience network will address the theme of the Campaign for the Decriminalisation of Poverty, Status and Activism. It will take place on Thursday 5 October 2023 at 12pm (Tunis) – 1pm (Brussels). You can register now, participation is free.
The Campaign for the Decriminalisation of Poverty, Status and Activism, launched in Africa, South Asia, North America and the Caribbean, is led by a coalition of civil society organisations calling for the revision and repeal of laws that target people because of their status (social, political or economic) or their activism.
In many countries, criminal procedure, penal codes and policing policies continue to reflect a colonial legacy. Offences dating from the colonial era, such as vagrancy, begging or disorderly conduct, are commonly used against people already in a vulnerable or marginalised situationt (homeless people, people with disabilities, drug users, LGBTIQ+ people, sex workers, migrants, etc.), with the sole aim of criminalising what they represent in society rather than the offences they have committed.
At the same time, in several of these countries, the criminal law is being used to repress activism and stifle dissent. Sedition laws dating back to colonial times and more recent public order laws, for example, are ubiquitous tools deployed by states to stifle protest and limit freedom of expression. States use the security apparatus, justice and detention against individuals and groups who do not represent a danger to the safety of citizens, but rather to maintain the status quo and the privileges of a minority.
This abuse of power has a profound cost in terms of human rights, manifesting itself in discrimination, the use of lethal force, torture, arbitrary and excessive imprisonment, disproportionate sentences and inhumane conditions of detention. This situation is compounded by intersecting forms of oppression based on the gender, age, disability, race, ethnic origin, nationality and/or social class of people who are already marginalised. The populations most affected by this criminalisation of status, poverty and activism are also those most affected by phenomena such as prison overcrowding, pre-trial detention, loss of family income, loss of employment, etc.
In 2021, the campaign, which brings together lawyers, jurists, members of the judiciary, activists and experts from more than 50 organisations, won some important victories, including landmark cases against various laws before national courts in Africa. These include the adoption of principles on the decriminalisation of minor offences by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the establishment by the Pan-African Parliament in 2019 of guidelines for a normative/model law on policing.
The Campaign therefore represents a real opportunity for a global change in criminal and social laws, policies and practices. For the first time, civil society is focusing on the common dysfunctions of the criminal justice system and establishing, among other things, the links between colonial criminal legislation and the criminalisation of poverty, in a global context of shrinking civic space.
The campaign has been organised through several committees: a global committee, of which ASF is a member, and thematic and geographical sub-groups to ensure greater representativeness of stakeholders and greater impact.
Avocats Sans Frontières is a member of the coordinating committees of the Francophonie and North Africa sub-groups respectively. This structuring is intended to further strengthen the campaign’s research objectives, priorities and targets in terms of advocacy and awareness-raising.
On the occasion of the 18th Summit of the Francophonie, held in Djerba on 19 and 20 November 2022, ASF and its partners in the Tunisian coalition for the decriminalisation of minor offences and poverty, organised a parallel event in Djerba during which demands were made to the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF), contained in a public document entitled the “Djerba Declaration”. The signatories believe that the OIF could and should play a central role in promoting the values of human rights, and promote the decriminalisation of minor offences which, in addition to their discriminatory nature, exacerbate the phenomena of prison overcrowding, which are themselves responsible for the worsening of inhumane and degrading conditions of detention.
The French-speaking sub-group, of which ASF is a member, started a series of internal consultation meetings in March 2023. These should lead to the drafting of a common vision and common objectives for its members, aligned with the campaign’s overall strategy charter that will bring together the common vision and objectives of its members. It will serve as the basis for an advocacy strategy vis-à-vis influential players such as the European Union and its member states, the African Union and its member states, the various European institutions responsible for cooperation policies, and the institutions and mechanisms of the United Nations.
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.
This article was written as part of ASF’s 2022 annual report, which will soon be available on ASF’s website.
Justice ExPEERience is an international network of actors active in the promotion of human rights on all five continents. It is above all a collaborative network, in which members are invited to share their experiences and expertise, but also to work together, in coalitions or communities of practice, on concrete projects for monitoring human rights violations, strategic litigation or advocacy actions.
More than a year after its launch, the Justice ExPEERience network has over 400 members. Among them are activists, lawyers, researchers, members of civil society, etc. who work in the fields of justice and human rights promotion. ASF’s ambition is to create an environment that allows all these actors to collaborate and mutually strengthen their expertise and capacities.
This is why ASF has started to develop in 2021 the digital platform Justice ExPEERience. This digital tool allows the network to be animated and structured. This is where exchanges take place, where learning between peers from different regions becomes possible, where working groups are formed and where collaborations are developed.
In order to guarantee the security of its members and the confidentiality of the information shared on Justice ExPEERience, the data is hosted directly on ASF’s servers and does not transit through the servers of big digital companies. To promote multi-country networking and meet the needs of as many actors as possible, Justice ExPEERience is a multilingual platform: its interface is currently available in German, English, Arabic, French and Portuguese; and posted content and news can be translated into other languages using an instant translation tool. In 2022, the platform was also developed as a mobile application, downloadable and usable on smartphones, to make it more accessible in all contexts.
On Justice ExPEERience, all members can share information, news and interact like on a social network, on human rights issues; but they can also share documentation and collaborate directly online, in a secure way, on documents. Different collaborative spaces are available on the platform, on specific themes or projects: the platform hosts 250 collaborative spaces, including 20 public spaces dedicated to the exchange and sharing of thematic information between all members of the network. The members of Justice ExPEERience are therefore invited to collaborate not only on public sharing spaces, open to the whole network, but also on confidential private spaces strictly reserved for members working on a common project.
Justice ExPEERience Community(ies)
In these different spaces, network members can work together in coalitions or communities of practice, maintaining the desired level of openness or confidentiality of their work. In 2022, Justice ExPEERience has developed several communities of practice, consisting of civil society actors implementing projects in different countries. They deploy and coordinate joint actions for monitoring human rights violations (in different countries), strategic litigation (national or transnational) or advocacy (at local, regional or international level). In the confidential spaces dedicated to them, the communities of practice have a shared and collaborative library, which the members enrich, in order to encourage the horizontal dissemination of expertise and learning between peers. This sharing of expertise and information also takes place in the thematic spaces open to all members, making Justice ExPEERience itself an international and multi-sectoral community of practice.
In order to energise the network and foster exchanges between its members, ExPEERience Talks are organised every month to promote the dissemination of expertise and knowledge. They are webinars during which network members present a research, a project, a tool or an analysis related to the promotion of human rights and justice. In 2022, 5 ExPEERience Talks took place, on topics as varied as the trajectories of Tunisian migrants repatriated from Italy, the governance of natural resources in Uganda and the DRC, penal practices in the CAR, or the scope and impact of the decisions of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
Each month, information on new research, activities and events of the network is shared in a newsletter, The ExPEERience Letter.
Justice ExPEERience has the ambition to develop further in 2023: attracting new members, enriching the creation and sharing of expertise through its platform but also its Talks and newsletter, developing new collaborations – especially transnational -, opening up to partnerships with external actors and improving the platform and its tools to better meet the needs of its members. Justice ExPEERience will be the subject of a tech-demo at the international summit for digital and human rights, RightsCon, in June 2023.
The Alliance for Security and Liberties (ASL), of which ASF is a member, has published its fifth report on the rule of law and the state of freedoms in Tunisia. Begun in the aftermath of President Saïed’s coup de force on 25 July 2021, ASL’s quantitative and qualitative monitoring and analysis of the events, decisions and reactions that followed the controversial vote on the new Tunisian Constitution on 25 July 2022 is presented in this fifth edition.
More than a year and a half ago, on 25 July 2021, President Saïed activated Article 80 of the Constitution and established a state of emergency. This date marked the beginning of his dismantling of the institutions resulting from the post-2011 transition: parliament frozen and then dissolved, constitutional bodies dissolved, full powers by decree, ratification of a Constitution unilaterally drafted by Saïed and voted under deleterious conditions…
The picture painted by this bulletin leaves little doubt as to President Said’s autocratic intentions and his desire to close the chapter of democratic transition in Tunisia once and for all. He unilaterally imposes a political project with vague outlines but which is certainly vertical, authoritarian and populist.
Several trends and developments emerge from the monitoring and analysis work of the Security and Freedom Alliance.
At the institutional level, the period was marked by the vote and ratification of the new Constitution, which established the hypertrophy of the executive to the detriment of the legislative and judicial powers, which were considerably weakened. The polls leading up to the vote on the Constitution and the election of the first chamber of Parliament were characterised by their incompatibility with electoral norms and historically low turnout. The judiciary continues to be attacked and dismantled against the backdrop of a major socio-economic crisis.
At the same time, rights and freedoms continue to be eroded, in a context of instrumentalisation of the judiciary and the security apparatus, and repression of opponents, the press and trade unions. Arbitrary administrative measures to restrict freedoms and the adoption of liberticidal decree-laws have become common practice. The last few months have also been marked by a campaign of racist violence – supported by the state’s hateful rhetoric – against sub-Saharan populations, at a time when more and more migrants (Tunisian or not) are trying to reach Europe by sea, risking their lives.
Finally, the vice is tightening ever more on an opposition that is struggling to form a united front against the regime. The political scene remains unstable and shifting. Several opposition initiatives (civil and political) coexist but do not manage to constitute an opposition force capable of challenging the President’s authoritarian designs, while some of his allies are distancing themselves.
On the international scene, Tunisia is isolating itself. Condemnations have been mounting and even intensifying since the waves of arrests of public figures in recent months and the deployment of xenophobic rhetoric against sub-Saharan migrants. It is in this context that the President is undertaking diplomatic efforts, particularly with Arab states, to obtain international support.
L’Alliance pour la Sécurité et les Libertés
The Alliance for Security and Liberties (ASL) is an alliance of Tunisian and international civil society organisations based in Tunisia which, in the continuity of the Revolution of Freedom and Dignity, reflects, mobilises and acts so that Tunisia consolidates the construction of a democratic state whose public policies are at the service of the citizens guaranteeing peace, respect for their human rights and equality between all.
In Tunisia, the actors of the penal chain tend to perpetuate the repressive reflexes of the former Ben Ali regime. Prison overcrowding remains very high: a 131% rate of occupation with 23,607 prisoners at the end of 2020 (accused and convicted) for around 18,000 places available, resulting in detention conditions below international standards.
The measures taken to counter the pandemic had for a time helped to curb the figures. Between mid-March and the end of April, 8,551 detainees were released, a 37% drop in the prison population. This decrease was due in particular to the mobilisation of several civil society organisations, including Avocats Sans Frontières and its partners in the “L’Alternative” project. By multiplying calls for a decrease in the prison population, civil society has contributed to this notable drop in the prison occupancy rate.
Nevertheless, this historic deflation was only temporary. As a result of short-term measures (presidential pardons, reduced pre-trial detention and increased conditional releases), this drop was quickly erased by the repressive structural dynamics from which Tunisian penal policy still suffers.
Conservatism among judges, difficulties in accessing a defence from the moment of police custody, the massive use of pre-trial detention (62% of those incarcerated are defendants), imprisonment for minor offences (such as cannabis use or unpaid cheques), and the limited use of alternatives to prison are all factors that explain the persistence of this high rate of incarceration.
Changing people’s mind and moving away from these repressive reflexes, particularly in the magistracy, is a long-term task. This is why particular attention is paid to developing advocacy with actors in the criminal justice system and political decision-makers. This is all the more important as reforms of the Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure are underway, which would be necessary for any significant structural change.
To contribute to the reform of penal and prison policy in Tunisia, ASF continues to work with its partners despite the democratic transition slowdown and a period of political instability in Tunisia. In particular, through its “L’Alternative” project, the organisation provides technical and financial support to civil society organisations working at different levels of the penal chain (before, during and after incarceration).
As authorities initially downplayed the gravity of the Covid-19 health crisis, a sense of astonishment prevailed throughout the world at the unprecedented nature and scale of the measures that were later taken. More than half of the world’s population has found itself locked down, with varying economic, social, physical and mental consequences on individuals depending on personal and political context.
Like everyone else, ASF has had to adapt, in very different and sometimes very volatile environments. Very quickly, a tendency emerged in all the monitored countries, whether they were authoritarian regimes, states in post-conflict situations, in democratic transition, or even so-called consolidated democracies: human rights were almost systematically absent from the political discourse and the authorities’ decision-making.
Each measure adopted in the context of the health crisis has led to the limitation of rights and freedoms, sometimes in a domino effect. For example, lockdown measures not only affected the right to freedom of movement, but also the right to education, the right to work, and in some cases even the right to health or food.
However, human rights can only be limited by law and in a way that is strictly proportionate to the goal pursued. This goes hand in hand with the principle of necessity according to which, faced with a range of options, the State must necessarily choose the one that least infringes rights and freedoms. While these principles should have guided reflection, they received little echo in political decision-making.
Aiming to defend and promote a human rights-centred approach, ASF and its partners developed a framework for monitoring the impact of Covid-19 measures on human rights and the principles of the rule of law. It started in March 2020 in Tunisia, Uganda, Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Belgium. This monitoring has been complemented by numerous actions regarding access to justice, particularly on the issue of prison overcrowding. The systematic integration of a “Covid-19 approach” has allowed ASF to highlight how essential principles of protection and promotion of human rights have been breached in all political systems. The data collected in these few countries illustrate a global trend, providing an alarming picture of the situation.
The absence of a both international and regional governance frameworks on these issues has led to ad hoc chain reactions, with a quasi-systematic strengthening of executive powers, even when less human rights-infringing solutions were available to policy makers. This led to an important personification of the health response. These unprecedented reinforcements of executive powers, as seen in Tunisia or Uganda, made the respect for the human rights potentially subject to arbitrariness for some groups of the population.
This tendency to criminalize, which went as far as incarcerating offenders, has thus been at odds with the very logic of social distancing advocated by the authorities in contexts of severe prison overcrowding. The suspension of judicial activities has also led to potentially illegal detention of people in pre-trial or provisional detention. Calls for prison deflation, which already existed prior to the health crisis, have multiplied in the face of the increased vulnerability of detainees and the disproportionate violation of their rights caused by the suspension of visiting rights. Although some States, such as Uganda and Tunisia, finally released – although sometimes only provisionally – prisoners nearing the end of their sentences or convicted for minor offences, the announcement effect quickly faded as prison occupation quickly grew back to similar or higher rates compared to pre-crisis data.
The situation of detainees is only one illustration of the differentiated, and potentially discriminatory, impact of the health measures suffered by categories of people already in a situation of vulnerability. The upsurge in cases of gender-based violence, particularly in the domestic context, has been systematic. Pre-existing vulnerabilities have further exposed people to the health crisis, and to its devastating socio-economic consequences. A study carried out in Belgium highlighted this very clearly: even though the measures taken were neutral in their formulation, they produced particularly harmful effects on migrant people, racialised people and detainees. This uneven impact on groups of the population could be characterized as indirect discriminiation.
Finally, the various trends observed exacerbated the structural and individual weaknesses that existed prior to the crisis. At a time when prospects for a way out of the crisis are themselves uncertain, it is more important than ever to continue and anchor this monitoring work and, above all, to integrate the human rights-based approach into the governance and evaluation mechanisms put in place throughout this year. Civil society has overly been relegated to their role as watchdogs, without being guaranteed a space to participate constructively – notably on the basis of field data, such as those collected by ASF and its partners – in these frameworks for dialogue.
>> Read more about our monitoring effort and access other articles <<Authors :Michael Musiime, Elisa Novic, Nathalie Vandevelde*In light of Uganda’s recent experience with dealing with the Ebola Virus Disease, the country has very quickly developed a comprehensive plan to contain the spread of Covid-19. Preventive measures were taken as of March 18th, before any cases were recorded in the country. By the time Uganda had recorded its first case on March 22nd, health workers were already on high alert and the promotion of preventive behaviours, such as regular hand washing, was already largely implemented.
This blogpost covers the period from March 18th to early June 2020. During this time, there has been a steady rise in the number of Covid-19 cases with the total number of recorded cases now standing at close to 700.
A presidential and oral response to the pandemic crisis
Uganda has addressed the pandemic crisis through a de facto state of emergency. The President chose not to trigger art. 110 of the Constitution, which confers him the possibility to declare a state of emergency after Parliamentary approval. Instead, he adopted a series of declarations, the legal status of which is quite unclear. The first of the kind was made on March 18th 2020, establishing a strict lockdown and curfew through 34 measures (e.g. closing of schools, bars and churches; prohibition of public gatherings; 14 day-quarantine upon entering Uganda; prohibition of entry into Uganda). The Minister of Health later formalized them into a number of Rules and Orders, as foreseen in Section 29 of the Public Health Act CAP. 281, which provides the Minister of Health with wide powers to manage and prevent the propagation of pandemics.
However, most of these measures have been implemented on the sole basis of the President’s directives, even before being enacted in the Health Ministry’s Rules and Orders. For instance, the March 18th President’s directive only became a ministerial rule, published in the official gazette, on March 24th. Yet, the President’s public announcements are not legally binding. The internet website of the Presidency does offer transcriptions of President Museveni’s directives, but Ugandans still have to rely on the media to develop an awareness of the restrictions to their rights and freedoms during the crisis. These reports are usually in English; no official translation in local languages is available.
This way of ruling constitutes a clear breach of international standards. The African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights provides that limitation to human rights – such as freedom of movement and freedom of assembly (Articles 11 and 12) – must be provided for by law, for ‘the protection of national security, law and order, public health or morality’.A neutralized balance of powers
The stakes are not just theoretical. The decision not to declare a state of emergency has deprived the Parliament of its constitutional mandate to monitor or balance the Executive powers’ self-assigned ‘exceptional powers’ over the extent of restrictions to rights and freedoms over the past couple of months. The Parliament’s own actions have not avoided criticism either. It decided at an early stage to grant 20 million shillings (around 4800 EUR) to each Member of Parliament (MPs), on their private bank account, to tackle the pandemic crisis in their constituency. The High Court eventually ordered the MPs to return the funds to either the Parliamentary Commission account, the National Covid-19 taskforce or the District Covid-19 taskforces.
Such a judgment remains an exception, as Court hearings and appearances were suspended as of March 20th, except for urgent matters or bail applications. Only minimal judicial services thus remained in operation, primarily to deal with the filing of emergency actions related to the administration of justice. For instance, in front of the High Court, a lawyer contested the Ministry of Health’s regulation omitting legal aid services from a list of “essential services” as a breach of fair trial standards. While the case was processing, the President announced new guidelines, allowing “a quota of 30 lawyers at any one time to provide urgent legal services”. The High Court eventually requested that the Health Ministry follow up on implementing the directive through standard operational procedures.
The concentration of powers in the hands of the Executive with little to no Judicial or Parliamentary oversight, combined with the lack of clarity of the status and content of measures adopted to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, have constituted fertile ground for abuses in the implementation of such measures. These include excessive use of force by security forces, including Local Defense Units, in enforcing the lockdown measures, as well as harassment of journalists and human rights defenders in a worrisome trend of shrinking civic space in Uganda. These will be further explored in future posts on both the impact of mobility restrictions on Ugandans’ rights and freedoms, and judicial administration.
* The authors would like to warmly thank Irene Anying and Romain Ravet for their input on a first draft version, as well as LASPNET Uganda, especially Badru Walu, for their contribution to the data collection.
 These preventive measures included i.a. the prohibition of mass gatherings, restrictions on weddings and funerals, limitations on traveling to and from abroad.
 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda, art. 110(1)(3).
 Public Health (Notification of Covid-19) Order (17 March 2020); Public Health (Prevention of Covid-19) Order (17 March 2020); Public Health (Prohibition of Entry into Uganda) order (24 March 2020); Public Health (Control of Covid-19) Rules (24 March 2020); Public Health (Control of Covid-19) (No. 2) (Amendment No. 2) Rules, 2020. S.I No. 64 of 2020 (8 May 2020).
 According to Article 110 (1) of the Constitution “The President may, by proclamation declare that a state of emergency exists in Uganda, or any part of Uganda – which render necessary the taking of measures which are required for securing the public safety.”
 See also International Covenant on Civil and Political rights, i.a. art. 4, 12(3), 21 ; Siracusa Principles on the Limitation and Derogation Provisions in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, paras. 15, 25.
 Article 110 (6) of the Constitution of Uganda provides that: “During any period when a state of emergency declared under this article exists, the President shall submit to Parliament at such intervals as Parliament may prescribe, regular reports on actions taken by or on behalf of the President for the purposes of the emergency.” Moreover, if a State of Emergency is declared, Articles 47 to 48 of the Constitution set special rules with regard to detention, and a specific control that must be exercised by Parliament.
Gerald Karuhanga & Jonathan Odur v. Attorney General., 29 April 2020 (written version of judgment not available).
 Uganda Chief Justice’s Circular, Administrative and Contingency Measures to Prevent and Mitigate the Spread of Corona Virus (Covid-19) by the Judiciary (19 March 2020). The measures have since been renewed, though mitigated, in the Uganda Chief Justice’s “Guidelines for online hearings in the Judiciary of Uganda” (29 April 2020) https://bit.ly/2BA0M3r.
Turyamusiima Geoffrey v Attorney General & Jane Ruth Aceng, Misc. Application No. 64 of 2020. The ULS did not agree on the limitation to 30 of its members. This will be discussed in a further post on the administration of justice. Continue reading “Uganda’s de facto state of emergency to address the Covid-19 pandemic”
Access to justice is a serious problem in the Central African Republic. That is the key finding in a study Avocats sans Frontières has just published. Analysis of the situation on the ground has revealed difficulties in access to lawyers and to a state justice system of adequate quality. Those are the reasons why citizens avoid the formal state system, and instead, turn to local chiefs, religious leaders, non governmental organisations and others. ASF recommends that development agencies draft and implement robust strategies to achieve sustainable improvements. And for them to be successful, these strategies must include all the actors involved, both formal and informal.
Inadequate state justice system
The justice system in the CAR was already fragile before the crisis in 2013. It subsequently collapsed. State tribunals are sparse outside the capital, making it very difficult to get access to legal help. Security services often set themselves up as the primary handlers of legal aid. However, they do not have the requisite competences, and they handle cases internally. Furthermore, there are many reports of corruption, extortion, intimidation and random detentions in the course of their activities.
Lack of access to lawyers
The cost of legal services, the lack of points of access, and the type of case lawyers prefer to handle (mainly relating to property and business), means that most citizens simply cannot get affordable access to legal services. Nevertheless, they trust lawyers. Citizens say they are willing to take their cases to lawyers, providing the legal services available are affordable.
Informal systems are a widespread alternative
Given the lack of access to formal services, many citizens turn to neighbourhood alternatives to resolve disputes. Village chiefs, neighbourhood chiefs, and religious leaders are among those solicited. These avenues are more accessible than formal systems, but there are nevertheless problems. There are conflicts regarding competences, and confusion among the chiefs administering justice. There have also been reports of discrimination, corruption and intimidation in the exercise of such alternative systems.
Recommendation: treat the problems holistically
ASF has observed that many strategies to remedy the situation are limited to improving official state systems. It recommends that actors such as major donors wanting to improve accessibility to justice treat current problems holistically. That means involving both formal and informal structures in order to create stable, sustainable systems. The reality on the ground is that there are established informal structures. Any strategy that does not involve them will fail.
Avocats sans Frontières has carried out numerous projects in CAR since 2015. This report is its latest contribution to attaining and promoting better access to justice in the country.
To read more about these studies, follow this link.