The campaign to decriminalise poverty, activism and status

This article was published in ASF’s 2022 annual report

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.

ASF’s Euro-mediterranean regional hub

This article is part of ASF’s 2022 annual report.

In 2018, ASF launched a regional hub in the Euro-Mediterranean region, based in Tunis, with the aim of pooling resources and strengthening and harmonising its action in the region. The innovative aspect of the regional office is to fully assume the historical, economic, political and cultural links that exist between the two shores of the Mediterranean, and to take them into account in order to put in place action at regional level that is coherent and efficient.

The Euromed Hub is made up of five members and the country directors for Morocco and Tunisia. It collects and analyses data from the field in order to guide decision-making processes at national and European level. The hub provides strategic guidance to the region’s offices and identifies opportunities for developing and consolidating partnership networks at both national and regional level. The hub also provides technical support to the country offices in terms of financial management and human resources.

Three eminently transnational and global issues, which in their own way shape relations between the two shores of the Mediterranean, have been identified as thematic priorities for the region:

a)            Migration: all the countries to the south of the Mediterranean are countries of origin (Tunisia, Morocco) and transit (Algeria, Libya) for migrants. On the European side, migration is taking up an inordinate amount of space in the public debate, and the policies implemented by the European Union and its member states flout the fundamental rights of migrants.

b)            Freedom and security: the fight against terrorism and violent extremism can give rise to public policies that restrict freedoms and civic space and hinder democratic transitions and people’s fundamental freedoms. This is true for the south and the north of the Mediterranean Sea, where a proliferation of exceptions to the principle of the rule of law for health and security reasons is threatening the “consolidated democracies” of the European continent.

c)          Combating the impunity of economic actors: economic interests maintain a system of dependence from the south to the north of the Mediterranean. The conduct of European economic players in Africa has a major impact on increasing social inequalities and on the environment, and can sometimes be a determining factor in conflict (at local, national and international level).

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.

Migration, a major strategic issue

Mer Méditerranée

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

Since 2014, more than 20,000 people have lost their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Africa to Europe. One of the main reasons behind this heavy human toll is the decision of EU Member States to close safe and legal access routes to Europe.

This policy is supported by a growing intolerance towards migration, a tougher repression of foreigners as a threat to national security, and the increasingly authoritarian behaviour of European states. It is for these reasons that the Europe-Mediterranean office of ASF, based in Tunis, has made the migration issue one of its strategic priorities.

In 2021, the organisation launched a joint action with the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES) and the Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration (ASGI) in order to help Tunisians who are victims of forced repatriation from Italy. Its particular position allows ASF’s team in Tunisia to produce relevant and contextualised expertise based on data collected in the field and linked to the organisation’s advocacy strategies.

Together with its partners, ASF is working to collect, through legal consultations, information likely to improve knowledge and understanding of the control mechanisms leading to the systematic repatriation of Tunisians from Italy. The data collected highlights the existence of a discriminatory system against Tunisians, preventing them from exercising their right to freedom of movement. Even worse, detention in hotspots and repatriation centres keeps them in a state of great economic, physical and psychological precariousness, which undermines their chances of reintegration into Tunisia.

The monitoring of detention conditions in hotspots and repatriation centres is part of an approach “without borders” that denounces the arbitrary and counterproductive nature of the migration policies of EU Member States. At all stages of their migration journey, migrants are subjected to abuse and various degrading practices. This policy is all the more ineffective as most repatriated migrants will attempt to cross the Mediterranean again. ASF calls on European states to respect their commitments and to put in place fair and human rights-friendly migration policies.

Joint statement on the situation of refugees in Greece

The signatories acknowledge the recent decision of the Greek Government to increase the level of deterrence at the borders to the maximum, to stop the registration of asylum applications for one month and to turn back to their country of origin or their country of transit anyone trying to enter into Greece illegally, following the Turkish authorities’ declaration to open its borders and to allow refugees to enter Greece. The Greek Prime Minister claims that these measures are adopted in compliance with Article 78.3 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union – however, this provision does not allow any unilateral decision of a Member State nor does it neutralise the obligation for the European Union and the Member States to respect European law, including the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the right to asylum and the principle of non-refoulement. The statements above take place in the context of significant violations of human rights reported from all sides regarding the treatment of refugees who are held in overcrowded hotspots in the Greek Aegean Islands, whether in relation to their basic needs (including proper housing, hot water, food, heating and sanitation) or to their access to justice (including access to a lawyer, to effective remedies against detention or deportation, and to a fair and transparent procedure for their asylum application) and the general malfunctioning of the Greek asylum system. The treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in Turkey has also been condemned by numerous international human rights organizations, despite the efforts of the Turkish authorities to host thousands of refugees since the beginning of the troubles in Syria in 2011 and to implement a new asylum system. These organizations have reported, in particular, a massive deportation of refugees to the north of Syria, an area described as a “humanitarian nightmare”, where civil populations are exposed to a serious and imminent risk of violations of their human rights. The signatories issue a strong reminder that the European Union “is founded on the indivisible, universal values of human dignity, freedom, equality and solidarity; it is based on the principles of democracy and the rule of law” as stated by the Preamble of the EU Charter for Fundamental Rights and Article 2 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. The signatories strongly condemn all violation of human rights of those seeking asylum in the European Union. On no account does the protection of the EU’s external borders exempt EU Member States from their obligations under European law, including the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights or the Geneva Convention on Refugees (1951), which all prohibit putting into jeopardy the right to life and which support the right not to receive inhumane or degrading treatment; the principle of non-refoulement of asylum seekers; and the right to asylum and international protection for all displaced persons. None of the current Greek practices of (a) suspending registration of asylum applications (b) pushing back refugees arriving from Turkey (c) deporting refugees back to their countries of origin or countries of transit where they will face continued persecution or (d) containing refugees in overcrowded camps without access to basic needs and access to law, are compatible with international and European laws on human rights. The signatories urge:
  • EU institutions and Member States, while applying Article 78.3 of the Treaty, to take all appropriate urgent measures to resettle and relocate refugees – including both the recent arrivals from Turkey as well as those currently living in overcrowded camps on the Greek Aegean Islands – in acknowledgement of the core EU principles of freedom, equality, solidarity and human dignity;
  • EU institutions and Member States to guarantee to all persons reaching European territory an immediate access to the right to asylum and to refuse to adopt and to condemn and sanction any law or measure aiming to suspend the application of this right or seeking to return refugees to countries where they risk exposure to human rights violations (infringing European and international law, including within the framework of the application of Article 78.3 of the Treaty);
  • EU institutions and Member States to ensure implementation of the 2001/55/CE Directive, specifically adopted to address a large influx of displaced persons in order to grant them a temporary protection;
  • Greek and Turkish authorities to immediately cease all measures jeopardizing the life and dignity of refugees or involving use of force against refugees, in violation of European and international law, and for the European institutions and Member States to condemn and sanction these policies instead of supporting them;
  • EU institutions and Member States to revise their migration policy aiming to externalize the responsibility of migration management to countries not offering sufficient guarantees to respect human rights, and
  • All parties involved to respect human rights and the principle of the Rule of Law, which are guaranteed by the Treaties and the European and international law on human rights and refugees.
  List of signatories IUIA-IROL (Institute for the Rule of Law – International Association of Lawyers) International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) The European Bars Federation The Conseil National des Barreaux (France) European Association of Lawyers for Democracy & World Human Rights (ELDH) European Democratic Lawyers (AED) Hellenic League for Human Rights / /Ελληνική Ένωση για τα Δικαιώματα του Ανθρώπου και του Πολίτη  (ΕλΕΔΑΠ) Human Rights Association (Turkey) / İnsan Hakları Derneği (İHD) Human Right League Belgium (Belgium FR) Association Syndicale des Magistrats (Belgium) Avocats Sans Frontières (Belgium) Bar of Cassation (Belgium) Ordre des Barreaux Francophones et Germanophone de Belgique (AVOCATS.BE) Bars of Brussel (FR) Bars of Brabant Wallon, Charleroi, Eupen, Huy, Liège, Mons, Tournai and Verviers (Belgium) Bar of Luxembourg Press contact Simon Mallet – Continue reading “Joint statement on the situation of refugees in Greece”

ASF receives a donation from the Belgian Development Cooperation to combat human trafficking in Tunisia

Wachtebeke (Belgium) – This Friday, 22 December 2017, Avocats Sans Frontières received an exceptional donation of 50,000 from the Belgian Development Cooperation. The Belgian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Development Cooperation, Alexander De Croo, personally presented a cheque to ASF as part of the solidarity event “Music for Life”.

The Flemish public radio station Studio Brussel has been organising “Music for Life” for the past twelve years. The aim of this event is to raise funds for good causes, through fun activities and events and donations from institutions. In total, the proceeds are shared by nearly 1,500 good causes.

Every year, the Belgian federal government contributes to this very popular show of solidarity. Among those to benefit from Music for Life, two organisations received a donation from the Belgian Development Cooperation today: Kiyo, an NGO active in the area of children’s rights, and ASF.

“This year, by taking part in Music for Life and de Warmste Week, I decided to support ASF’s important work. In Tunisia, ASF is helping to combat the phenomenon of human trafficking, the third-most lucrative form of organised crime worldwide. Illegal migrants are particularly vulnerable,” Minister De Croo said on the occasion (photo). “With this additional 50,000 in funding, ASF will be able to lift more people out of degrading living conditions.”

“Launched a few months ago, our awareness-raising campaign informs Tunisian citizens about the reality of human trafficking in their country today; it has already helped to change people’s mentalities. The donation received today will enable us to intensify our activities,” says Chantal van Cutsem, Executive Director of ASF (on the left on the picture).

Oumayma Mehdi, ASF Project Coordinator in Tunisia, explains: “We put together a team of lawyers, trained specifically to intervene in cases of human trafficking, and developed a manual on the application of legislation. We also organise training sessions for social workers who are active in shelters for victims. We are currently developing an intervention protocol to ensure that the various actors involved are protected and receive the best support. Among other things, this new funding will enable us to map human trafficking in Tunisia, produce a documentary, extend our training sessions to the personnel of the Instance Nationale de Lutte Contre la Traite (national anti-trafficking body), and develop a website to serve as a reference. This will all contribute to the protection and promotion of human rights in the country.

The Belgian Development Cooperation is one of our most important technical and financial partners. Our project to combat human trafficking in Tunisia also receives support from the European Union. It is carried out in partnership with the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights and the organisation NOVACT.

You too can support Avocats Sans Frontières! Donations of €40 or more are tax-deductible. Thank you! Continue reading “ASF receives a donation from the Belgian Development Cooperation to combat human trafficking in Tunisia”

Yes, refugees do contribute to development

Bujumbura, Burundi, 20 June 2014 – Do refugees contribute to the life and development of the country that receives them? For Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF), the answer is a clear yes. To mark World Refugee Day, ASF is launching an awareness-raising campaign in this regard in Burundi. This small African country, which is home to 50.000 refugees, is overflowing with fantastic stories of solidarity and hopes for the future.

“Here I am safe and free”, says Numbe Chock Bin, a Congolese refugee in Burundi. “I opened a bakery in the Kamuvu refugee camp and the bread that we make here benefits other refugees and the Burundians who live nearby.”

Numbe Chock Bin is one of three Congolese refugees who are sharing their journeys since fleeing from their home country, marked by years of violence and fear, through to their integration into Burundian society.

People who flee their country to seek refuge in another country are mostly vulnerable groups. More often than not they are unaware of their rights, do not understand the procedures to claim refugee status and are sometimes victims of abuse or sexual violence.

“Refugees don’t just have rights and obligations. They can also contribute to the development of their host-country,” explains Axelle Nzitonda, ASF project coordinator in Burundi. “To mark World Refugee Day we therefore decided to share life stories that show refugees participating in Burundi life and in the development of the country. We are also celebrating Burundi’s solidarity in welcoming the refugees.” In fact, this is the only country in the Great Lakes region to have set up a body responsible for tackling issues related to asylum.

These stories are being disseminated in the form of short videos on Burundian television as part of the PIDDAR* project. Launched in 2012, this project aims to reinforce protection and measures to provide legal advice and assistance for refugees and asylum seekers, and to promote the asylum and international protection of refugees in Burundi.

“There are Burundians who come to my bakery and I teach them how to make bread,” is Numbe Chock Bin pleased to say. “It benefits their future.”

Thanks to the PIDDAR project, more than 2.800 people have already been made aware of their rights and 2.600 have received free legal advice.

This ASF project, financed by the European Union, supports the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the National Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons, part of the Interior Ministry responsible for determining the status of refugees.

According to the UNHCR, 51,2 people – refugees, internally displaced persons and stateless persons – are currently in need of international protection due to violence and instability in their home country.

Find out how a baker, a teacher and a student, all of them refugees, contribute to the development of the society (videos in French)

*PIDDAR = acronym for “Protection Internationale et Droits des Demandeurs d’Asile et des Réfugiés” (International Protection and Rights of Asylum Seekers and Refugees) Continue reading “Yes, refugees do contribute to development”