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.
In 2017, ASF launched its activities in Indonesia with two local partners. Together, we worked to increase access to both formal and informal justice mechanisms for marginalized and groups in vulnerable situations through improved community-level, evidence based service delivery. A special focus was put on training and supporting paralegals to help them assist local populations in their justice needs.
In countries with very few lawyers per capita, paralegals are practitioners who do not possess a law degree but have a basic knowledge and understanding of the law and deliver legal advice to the population. ASF has worked with paralegals in several of its countries of intervention as they can be fundamental actors in helping local populations access justice.
A baseline perception study on paralegals and the role they can play in strengthening access to justice was produced at the start of the project. Its findings were used to create training modules. These modules were then used by several local organizations to reinforce paralegals’ capacities. They address a large scope of subjects, with different thematic and geographical coverage, which made them flexible and useful for a great variety of organizations. Our partners have found it to be instrumental in supporting the enactment of the legal aid local regulation in Bali in 2019.
In the frame of the project, three digital platforms were launched to support civil society organisations.
A Case Management System was created and is now used by several organisations to manage the cases they are working on in a database. It has been developed in open source so that any legal aid organization can use it freely.
The Paralegal Information System was created to help paralegals request and receive legal support from lawyers in order to asssit them in the cases they work on.
And finally, an application called E-resource, was created to allow legal aid service providers to access books and other resources.
To support advocacy efforts, a community of practice was created with multiple stakeholders working on legal aid issues. It allowed members to debate on future necessary legilslative reforms to promote. Those 5 years in Indonesia enabled us and our partners to draw important conclusions regarding access to justice in the region. First, it is undeniable that paralegals play an essential role in assisting local population in their justice needs. Their status needs to be further recognized by local and national authorities. Secondly, the production of flexible training modules with the possibilitly to choose the materials is easier to replicate and should be prefered to a fixed curriculum. Finally, even though the use of digital platforms to strengthen capacities of civil society organizations has been promising, it proved to be very expensive and lengthy to implement. It must be tailored for each organization, which can take months of discussions. The availability of IT officer and maintenance through funding source must be found to ensure the service sustainability.
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.
Brussels/N’Djamena, 17 December 2018 – Chad has about 12 million inhabitants…and 135 practising lawyers, almost all based in the capital, N’Djamena. Fortunately, they are not the only ones defending people’s rights: supervised and trained by national organisations and by ASF, paralegals provide legal aid services to the most destitute.
Paralegals are men and women who work voluntarily to make the law accessible to everyone. Most of them are ordinary villagers, not legal professionals.
Their work, which complements that of lawyers, is crucial: it enables conflicts to be resolved amicably, in a way that respects everybody’s rights, and promotes peace and social cohesion. They are true ambassadors of the law to the people.
Bedjebedje, aged 60, is a paralegal in Béré: “What motivates me the most is the contribution we are making to society and the way we are educating people about the law. My concern is that justice is done.”
Make a donation: help us to improve the working conditions of paralegals and ensure the quality of the services they provide. For example, 40 euros would cover their travel and communication costs for a month, and thus enable them to reach the most remote areas.Mbaibai (on the right in the photograph), aged 47, mother of five children and paralegal: “Due to a lack of means of transport, I travel on foot. But I consider myself happy and I’m optimistic. I am hopeful that the working conditions will improve one day.”Make a donation:
By bank transfer to the Avocats Sans Frontières account BE89 6300 2274 9185
If the amount that you donate adds up to €40, we will send you a tax receipt in February.
The ASF project with paralegals in Chad is partly funded by the European Union. We need your help to raise the remaining funds so we can carry out all the activities that are planned!
Thank you for your generosity.
We wish you all a very happy holiday season.
PS: We are putting together a team to run the Brussels 20 km on 19 May 2019, to raise money for paralegals in Chad. Join us: you can sign up now!
Kampala, 25 July 2018 – Last June, Avocats Sans Frontières released the Community-Based Mediation Training Module, along with three like-minded organisations: Justice Centres Uganda, the Legal Aid Service Providers Network, and USAID-SAFE. This marked the end of a drafting process from which many lessons have been learned and the beginning of a long-term commitment to work towards closing a major gap in terms of access to justice in Uganda: the disconnection between the everyday forms of justice used by citizens and the justice provided by institutions.
In Uganda, very few disputes go to court. The formal courts suffer from huge backlogs and are physically, financially, technically, and psychologically inaccessible to the poor. Community-based dispute resolution (outside the formal court system), on the other hand, is deeply embedded in Ugandan culture.
However, while the vast majority of Ugandans resort to local mediation mechanisms to solve their legal issues, engaging with relevant stakeholders has revealed important flaws in the functioning of those mechanisms. ASF and its partners designed the Module to overcome some of those flaws, and more specifically to:
Streamline the definition and understanding of mediation as a mode of conflict resolution in Uganda.
Ensure that mediation processes and outcomes are in line with internationally accepted standards and do not reproduce gender discrimination or any other type of discrimination, which is pervasive within traditional societal structures.
Focus on final agreements, the terms of which not only enhance the likelihood of decisions being implemented, but also provide some guarantees of form and content that could encourage courts of law and other authorities to endorse them.
The six-month development phase was a learning and collaborative process. National and international experts and local actors from three regions of Uganda provided the basis for developing the content. A pool of six trainers was created, who were involved in the writing process. The trainers were trained in adult education methods and performed tests in the field, after which they were certified to train mediators at a grass-roots level. The next steps will involve the creation of a network of certified mediators across Uganda, so as to ensure consistently high standards for the people using their services.
Training community-based mediators, as well as bringing the practice more in line with standards of fair, impartial, and inclusive justice, is a bottom-up approach to closing the current institutional gaps in access to justice. These efforts must be complemented by a formalisation of the links between community-based and court-based justice. A more formal record and recognition of community-based mediation outcomes by the Justice Law and Order Sector is needed. This would not only create disincentives for land-grabbing and other attempts to exploit the most vulnerable, but would also contribute greatly to reducing the case backlog currently burdening courts in Uganda and avoid “forum shopping” between existing avenues.
The relevance of the Module was repeatedly confirmed by justice actors at all levels, in a context where conflicts about land issues are rife between community members. Ongoing development projects requiring the acquisition of land, such as those related to oil development in the Albertine Graben, and government endeavours to register land across the country, are likely to further exacerbate those conflicts. These often complex situations, which feed on power imbalances and gaps in the justice system, require broad-ranging solutions. Close cooperation between a wide set of actors involved in the delivery of justice and beyond is needed to build a justice system that is accessible, efficient, and flexible enough to address the broad spectrum of conflicts in Uganda’s diverse regions.
>> Download the Community-based mediation training guide (PDF)
Bujumbura, 20 March 2018 – At the start of March the first discussion workshop was held with ninety lawyers from the two bar associations of Burundi, selected to take part in the ASF “Menya Utunganirwe” (“Know and Assert Your Rights”) project. The main objective was to raise awareness among the lawyers of the use of alternative dispute resolution (ADR). Not covered as part of their training, ADR mechanisms are not well-known to lawyers. ASF nonetheless considers them an essential tool for resolving conflicts and believes that lawyers have a vital role to play in their promotion.
In Burundi, ADR (such as mediation, negotiation, and conciliation) exists in law, but these mechanisms are not often used by lawyers. Salvator Kiyuku, President of the Bujumbura Bar Association, believes that “the lack of access to justice makes it difficult to meet the needs of lawyers and citizens alike.” Here, “lawyers are given the opportunity to provide a way forward, to give people a voice, and to play a social role to assist people who are suffering.”
To meet the needs of the people of Burundi, justice must be approached in a broad manner, which goes beyond its institutional and formal aspects; it must be reconciliatory, transforming destructive conflict into an opportunity to build lasting peace for the future. There are many advantages to this approach: this form of justice is less costly in terms of both time and money, gives control to the parties in conflict, and protects confidentiality. Céline Laloux, ASF Strategy and Development Coordinator, invited the lawyers to “open up their customs and practices, to be ‘lawyers without borders’, in order to gradually bridge the gap between formal and informal justice mechanisms, so that they can complement each other.” Jean Bosco Bigirimana, President of the Gitega Bar Association, added that “a bad settlement is better than a good court case.” This remark caused quite a stir among the lawyers!
The discussion about ADR raised a number of questions about the role of lawyers within society and about perceptions of their profession: “If the parties come to an agreement without the lawyer pleading the case, will the lawyer still be paid?”, for example, or “The client won’t think that they have won if there is no ruling in court.”
Longin Baranyizigiye, ASF Research and Training Coordinator, responded that, in practice, lawyers must be well-informed and draw up a framework with their client. “If the outcome is positive for relations between the parties, the client will be satisfied, and the lawyer’s skills will be recognised,” he explained. He invited the lawyers to develop innovative good practices when they are accompanying clients in conciliation proceedings. “For the lawyer, it’s an opportunity to break away from the rigid framework of the formal procedures and demonstrate their talent and creativity in the service of their client.”
The five-year (2017–2021) “Menya Utunganirwe” project is funded by the Belgian Development Cooperation and carried out by ASF, the bar associations of Bujumbura and Gitega, the Association pour la Paix et les Droits de l’Homme, and the Association des Femmes Juristes.
Bujumbura (Burundi), 7 December 2017 – After several months of preparation, the official launch of the “Menya Utunganirwe” (“Know and Assert Your Rights”) project took place last week in Bujumbura. Avocats Sans Frontières, the bar associations of Bujumbura and Gitega, and two civil society organisations, the Association pour la Paix et les Droits de l’Homme and the Association des Femmes Juristes du Burundi, came together with a shared objective: bringing people closer to justice, by facilitating access to justice through local mechanisms which respond to their concerns and address their needs. Despite being a recognised right, access to justice remains difficult for the majority of Burundian citizens. One of the problems they face is a lack of knowledge about procedures, due in part to their complexity and to the high rate of illiteracy. Citizens are not informed. “Selling your patch of land to pay for a legal procedure, is that a solution?”, asks Sistor Havyarimana, ASF Project Coordinator. “The individual must have the ability to be informed of the possibilities that exist and make a choice according to their situation.” Distance and poor access to lawyers also restrict access to justice. “Conflicts can escalate: a simple dispute over property could lead to a murder, when an earlier intervention might have yielded a peaceful solution.”
Mr Arcade Harerimana, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Justice, and Ms Christella Kankindi, head of the “Demande de Justice” (“Demand for Justice”) coordinating group, stressed that the right to access to justice is enshrined in the Ministry’s sectoral policy. Nonetheless, they both highlighted the obstacles that exist for many vulnerable citizens. “This vulnerability may be financial, personal (age, sickness, education, religion, etc.), or it could be linked to the nature of the problem,” explains Ms Kankindi.
That is why ASF and its partners have committed themselves to spending five years working together on a project made up of three approaches:
Strengthening people’s power to act in order to encourage the prevention of conflicts, by enabling them to be actors in the realisation and assertion of their rights. Community facilitators, close to the population, will receive assistance in responding to the population’s need for information and advice. This also entails diversifying modes of conflict resolution.
Strengthening independent, effective, and good-quality justice mechanisms, to contribute to bringing about a state based on the rule of law. Lawyers will have their skills enhanced and will receive training in identified areas. ASF will also provide assistance to lawyers in the delivery of quality legal aid services. According to Mr Salvator Kiyuku, President of the Bujumbura Bar Association, lawyers are keen to resolve the issues encountered by Burundian citizens. The lawyer has a social role to play and must defend vulnerable citizens: “It’s a moral, ethical, and social obligation,” he explained.
Coordinating those involved in the justice system and exchanging innovative practices. Legal mechanisms and alternative mechanisms for resolving conflict are considered complementary and actors can strengthen one another by establishing a shared framework for their activities.
Kinshasa, 16 July 2017 – In a country like the Congo, making use of the formal legal mechanisms is not always the best method of peacefully resolving conflicts. That is why Avocats Sans Frontières gives support to local justice actors in the country: community and traditional leaders, civil society organisations, paralegals, etc. This approach is central to the organisation’s new five-year project, officially launched at the start of June.
Drawing on fifteen years of experience in DR Congo, ASF recently launched a new five-year programme (2017–2021) with the aim of continuing its efforts to meet communities’ increasingly urgent needs in terms of justice. “Legal aid, as we typically think of it, largely depends on legal professionals and is too often focused on bringing conflicts before the courts. However, these legal institutions are unable to meet the immense needs of communities and people still have very little confidence in formal legal institutions,” explains Gilles Durdu, ASF Country Director.
To improve access to justice, it is necessary to diversify ways of resolving disputes and to support actors who put in place innovative and alternative mechanisms such as mediation. There are many advantages to these: they provide an affordable and locally accessible form of justice, which enables the speedy resolution of disputes, doesn’t require specific official procedures, and emphasises compensation and reconciliation, thus helping to maintain social cohesion. These mechanisms also help to reduce the strain on the courts. As part of its new five-year projet, ASF supports such forms of local justice, as well as strengthening collaboration with the formal sector (bar associations, lawyers, etc.) in order to guarantee the protection of the rights of populations in a holistic way.
Mgr Daniel Nlandu, Bishop of Matadi and representative of the Commission Diocésaine Justice et Paix (Diocesan Justice and Peace Commission), has enthusiastically welcomed this initiative, which will make it possible to respond to “the complex problem of conflicts of all kinds, which infect our societies and have always been a central priority of our Commission.” He urges all actors in the field to work together, “for the well-being of our communities, and for social peace.”
According to Irène Sifa Masumbuko, Minister of Justice and Human Rights for the province of North Kivu, “the role of lawyers and of civil society remains paramount in meeting the justice needs of vulnerable populations.” To achieve this objective, the Minister highlighted “the importance and necessity of combining the efforts of state legal institutions and civil society and international organisations.”
The project aims to raise awareness among 25,000 people of their rights and of the means of exercising them, to deliver free legal consultations to 4,500 people, and to provide legal assistance that is adapted to the needs and specific interests of 1,750 people. At the same time, 100 actors who work to facilitate the peaceful resolution of conflicts will receive training, to ensure the delivery of quality services.
This project is being carried out with the support of Belgian Development Cooperation, in partnership with the bar associations of Goma and Matadi, the Commission Diocésaine Justice et Paix, and the Dynamique des Femmes Juristes. It was officially launched on 7 June in Kinshasa and was the subject of two initial knowledge-exchange workshops with the various stakeholders in Matadi and Goma, held from 13 to 15 and from 19 to 21 June, respectively (see picture above).
>>> Download the presentation of the project (PDF in French)
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.