Reparation to victims of international crimes in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a major challenge in the fight against impunity

ASF has been active in the fight against impunity and the field of international justice for over 15 years in the DRC. During that time, the organization has witnessed great progress but regrets that current mechanisms are still not up to the challenges at stake.

As conflicts persist and condemnations in international crimes are more and more regular, victims still struggle to effectively receive the reparations that are granted to them by courts and tribunals. This represents a major issue as reparations are considered fundamental to achieving an effective process of reconciliation in the DRC. To this day, despite the 28 million USD granted to more than 3.300 victims, only one reparation ruling has been partially executed.

This obviously constitutes a major issue in itself but this is not the only problematic aspect about the reparations granted. Their form raises two major issues as well. First, they can only be granted through judicial decision, limiting access to justice for many victims. Secondly, Congolese law only allows the allocation of individual and monetary reparations.

The nature of the crimes committed, the prejudices suffered and their impact on large portion of the population require an adapted response. ASF considers that the Congolese legal system in its current state does not meet the standards required for these international crimes trials. International criminal law, for example, provides for the possibility of collective and non-pecuniary reparations, provisions which have not yet been incorporated into national legislation.

ASF addresses those challenges through its project “Pursuing the fight against impunity of grave crimes committed in the DRC”, funded by the European Union, and implemented in partnership with RCN Justice et Démocratie and Trial International. ASF’s and its partners’ strategy revolves around 4 axes: access to justice for victims, capacity building of field actors, awareness-raising and advocacy.

Thanks to the collaboration between ASF, its partners and the bar associations of Northern Kivu, Ituri and Maniema, more than 500 victims of international crimesinternational have been able to benefit from legal assistance in 2020. To make sure they benefit from the best services possible, ASF and its partners organized training sessions on reparations and their execution to the attention of lawyers, but also training sessions on data collection in the context of international crimes for civil society organizations.

Finally, ASF and its partners work to raise awareness of victims of international crimes and lead an advocacy effort to denounce the non-execution of the judicial decisions in favor of victims.

According to ASF, there is an urgent need for a thorough review of the place given to victims and reparations in the many international justice trials taking place in the DRC. For if these challenges are not met, the whole transitional justice process in the country is at risk. Its success is fundamental to enable the population to regain confidence in its institutions and to hope to achieve real reconciliation at national level.

Djugu killings: Significant evolution of Congolese jurisprudence on reparations

The Djugu 2 trial came to an end on 1 April 2021. It concluded with 21 defendants being sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity by murder, arson, destruction, pillaging and persecution, and 11 defendants being acquitted. The 219 civil parties were also granted most of their claims for reparations, both individual and collective, including rehabilitation measures, thus breaking with the practice of awarding only damages.

Restitution was also ordered as individual reparations. Among the collective reparations measures, the Ituri Military Tribunal ordered the DRC to set up a health centre in each village for the medical and psychological care of the victims; to take measures to search for the unaccounted-for bodies and to provide the victims with the means to organise their mourning; to erect a monument in each village that had been attacked; and to take appropriate measures to put an end to the activities of the armed group CODECO. This is a particularly relevant reconciliation of the different reparation measures provided by international law, namely compensation, restitution, rehabilitation, satisfaction and guarantees of non-repetition.

This verdict is an important step in the fight against impunity in Ituri, a region that is the scene of significant inter-community and ethnic tensions. This trial concerns in particular the crimes committed by the armed group “Cooperative for the Development of Congo” (CODECO) against the Hema community in the territory of Djugu, between December 2017 and March 2020. CODECO claims to defend the interests of the Lendu community (farmers) against the Hema community (herders and traders). The CODECO militia had intensified its attacks in the territories of Djugu, Irumu and Tchomia after the death of its leader Matthieu Ngudjolo and the arrest of his main lieutenants.

The Djugu trial covered crimes committed in these territories between December 2017 and March 2020. The defendants were accused of having launched several widespread and systematic attacks against the civilian population, killing more than 800 people, burning more than 400 homes and displacing 200,000 people.

This decision sends a strong signal to the armed groups operating in the region who continue to violate the rights of the civilian population, as well as to the Congolese state, whose responsibility is also recognised by the Court. The DRC was thus ordered to pay reparation in solidum for having failed in its mission to protect the population. Almost all of the victims, witnesses and informants reported the presence of the Congolese national police and the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo in the localities where the attacks and other reprehensible acts of which the defendants are accused were committed.

The proceedings were conducted in accordance with the law and the principles of a fair trial, in particular the legal time limits, despite the difficulties linked to the persistent insecurity caused by the presence of CODECO in the vicinity of Iga Barrière.

This verdict does not, however, mark the end of the judicial process for the victims of this case. Victims very rarely obtain the reparations to which they are entitled. The procedure for the execution of other forms of reparation is thus far from clear. The challenge now is to ensure that :

– The indigence of victims is recognised and they are exempted from the costs of the preparation of the case and the enforcement procedure;
– The administrative and judicial authorities proceed with the preparation of the judgment to make it enforceable;
– The administrative and judicial authorities proceed with the effective enforcement of the judgment;
– Victims effectively receive the reparations to which they are entitled as soon as possible.

Continue reading “Djugu killings: Significant evolution of Congolese jurisprudence on reparations”

Patrick Henry : “In a growing number of countries, the very notion of human rights is being challenged.”

The interview was first published in Le Journal des Tribunaux (March 2021)

As Avocats Sans Frontières is about to celebrate its 30th anniversary, the Journal des Tribunaux sat for an interview with Patrick Henry, the newly elected ASF’s president, to address the organisation’s history and its special relationship with Belgian lawyers and bar associations.

First of all, congratulations on your recent appointment to the presidency of ASF. The association has evolved a lot since its creation. What was the role of lawyers in the organisation’s work in its early days?

Lawyers have always played a central role in the work of ASF. The association was born in the minds of a group of Belgian bâtonniers and lawyers, under the leadership of bâtonnier Pierre Legros , in 1992. In its first project, ASF’s aim was to enable Belgian and European lawyers to travel abroad to defend litigants in “sensitive” cases,  where benefing from the service of an independent lawyer was not always a guarantee. Lawyers intervened in many countries such as Cuba, Palestine, Brazil, Turkey, Russia, Morocco, Sierra Leone, Bolivia, etc. Hence the name of the organisation, of course.

Why did the organisation’s mandate change so quickly?

The first turning point came with the genocide in Rwanda. It was a great shock for everyone. As early as 1994, ASF set up a programme to try to make up for the cruel lack of trained lawyers available. This seemed fundamental for the defence of both victims and defendants. In a human context that was as crucial as it was dramatic, it was necessary to guarantee the principles of a fair trial and the respect of international standards.

It was at this point that ASF began to take an interest in international criminal justice and the role of justice in post-conflict zones. These issues have since become central to the organisation’s mandate.

This was also a fairly rapid change of approach, since only two years after its creation, ASF was already broadening its field of action by adding to immediate assistance the technical and legal reinforcement of lawyers.

And our field of action has only broaden eversince. Today, ASF aims to contribute to a more just, equitable and supportive society, in which law and justice are at the service of groups and individuals in vulnerable situations and where a rule of law based on human rights is strongly established.

Over the years, justice has become a means to achieve these objectives. Today, ASF works in partnership with a multiplicity of national and international actors: civil society organisations, justice actors, local and national authorities but also academics, community representatives and, of course, the population itself.

How does working with these actors complement the work of lawyers?

The lawyer remains a central actor of change in ASF’s vision, but many others have proven to be essential to the achievement of our objectives in the countries where we work.
Take the example of the Central African Republic. There are only about a hundred lawyers for 4,500,000 inhabitants. And the vast majority of these lawyers practise in Bangui, the capital city. The formal judicial institutions are therefore generally absent in the remote areas. However, as everywhere, there are conflicts and these must be settled. How are they settled? By using informal structures: the citizen goes to village or neighbourhood chiefs, religious leaders, police officers, elders, etc. These mechanisms are essential to avoid the development of larger conflicts. They are essential to avoid the escalation of violence in these regions. However, exclusive recourse to this type of conflict resolution is far from guaranteeing impartial treatment of the parties involved. It is therefore necessary to make sure they do not simply replace the state courts. Otherwise, injustice will set in. This is why it is necessary to rely on these different actors and to ensure that they interact well together.

Lawyers have an important role to play in this area. And this is what they do in many countries, offering, in addition to their legal assistance and representation in court, mediation, information and advice to local actors. The training of paralegals who can help people to become aware of their rights and learn how to assert them has great potential in this respect.

So ASF’s ambition is to offer a more holistic approach?

Exactly, by multiplying the number of interlocutors, we can tackle problems structurally and increase our chances of bringing about lasting changes that have a real impact on the lives of litigants, but also on the rule of law, access to justice and the reduction of inequalities.

Our approach has also become more comprehensive. It no longer focuses solely on the countries of the South. The issues we work on in our countries of intervention – such as detention, the reduction of civic space, threats to individual freedoms, etc. – are issues that concern us all. It is important to think about them in this way. This is why we recently developed cross-cutting projects. For example, in 2020, we coordinated a project to monitor the impact of prevention measures linked to the pandemic on individual freedoms both in Belgium and in our countries of intervention. And the conclusions are often similar than we might think.

We are also closely following the work of the parliamentary commission charged with addressing Belgium’s colonial past. What is its impact on our societies today? How can we ensure the reconciliation necessary for healthy relations between these countries, their populations and their diaspora ? How can we ensure we do not keep reproducing those dynamics  of domination?
It is interesting because this project is very much in line with the themes of international criminal justice and transitional justice, which we have been working on for a very long time.

What do you wish for ASF in the future?

To continue to be dynamic, to take into account the changing contexts in which we live, and to look for the levers that really enable us to fight against injustice in the world. The health crisis has accelerated certain changes. We must see them as opportunities. Digitalisation, the creation of communities of practice, the sharing of expertise, the global approach to certain issues, positioning in the North, etc., are subjects that ASF has been working on for years, but we have, by necessity, made a lot of progress on these issues in 2020. It is through new collaborations, new approaches, that we can remain relevant while keeping the mandate of our organisation in focus.

We also need to be aware that in a growing number of countries, the very notion of human rights is being challenged, denounced as a product of capitalist-colonialism. This could be a turning point. Many countries have stopped trying to justify that they respect the standards of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Now they challenge them by rejecting them outright. For them, individual rights only correspond to an uncontrolled growth of desires, which precipitates our democracies into a logic of infinite demands that they call ungovernability or impolitics.
Some people are announcing the death of human rights. There is more to this than meets the eye. And, through some of our excesses, we are giving substance to it. But we must be aware that it poorly conceals a desire for hegemony, oppression and subjugation.

This is a great challenge for our societies. To show that equality, solidarity, dignity, freedom, the rule of law, justice for all, etc. are universal values. That they are valid for all and not only for white, male and Christian Europeans.

This is the challenge that ASF intends to take up. With the greatest number of you, I hope.

Between walls – Omar Ben Amor (Art Acquis) : “Access to culture to every detainee at any time”

Between walls – Walid Bouchmila (Horizon d’Enfance) : “When you make a project in prison, you really have to think of everyone”.

Discover the work done by the association Art Acquis with prisoners in Tunisia. With its Perspectives project, supported by ASF and ATL MST SIDA Bureau National, the organisation uses art as therapy. Through the activities offered, it seeks to help prisoners express themselves better about their experience, to occupy themselves constructively during their incarceration and to promote their reintegration into society.

Can you introduce yourself and the work of Art Acquis?

I am Omar Ben Amor, artist and founding member of the association Art Acquis. I have been a civil society actor for 6 years, as a choreographer, director, producer of the regional radio Diwan FM, documentary filmmaker…

Art Acquis is a cultural and artistic association that was founded in 2016 by a collective of artists. Its main objective is the social development of vulnerable populations through art and culture. We were the regional organizers of the Youth Forum of the French Institute in Sfax, we hosted the Carthage Film Days in 2017… We were also partners of Sfax “capital of Arab culture” in 2016.

Art Acquis works a lot with vulnerable populations, on taboo subjects; and we always wished to work with detainees. At first we thought it would be quiet complicated to reach out to them, until we participated to the Carthage Film Days in Sfax and helped organize a screening in prison.

What struck me was the level of debate: it went far beyond the content, we talked about direction, sound… Following this screening, we realized there was so much more to be done. And then came the opportunity of this project.

What is the work of Art Acquis in detention?

We have organised four types of workshops: theatre, cinema, painting and plastic arts, and music. We divided them into three phases, always with this idea of using art as therapy. For example, for theatre, we worked on the communication techniques offered by theatre (public speaking, etc.); in phase 2, the basics of theatre and in phase 3 we worked on a script for a play. We were even able to leave the prison with the participants to work on a stage in a theatre in Sfax. This was the first time we went out with the prisoners.

In the music workshop, we worked on writing music, the basics of music and music production. We collected the songs written by detainees and presented them to the General Committee for Prisons and Rehabilitation (CGPR), which proposed that we perform at the Carthage Musical Days. We are waiting for a follow-up on this.

For the film workshop, the idea was to provide access to legal information for prisoners. We organised several sessions with each time a specific theme, a film, a moderator specialising in cinema and a legal expert. For example, we dealt with illegal migration, law 52 [law on drug use and trafficking].

With the women, we did the painting and plastic arts workshop. We worked on conceptual art: how to go into 3D, how to make a sculpture… Then each woman created her own project, in connection with the journey that led her to prison. We hope to be able to exhibit in Sousse and Tunis, but we have already held an exhibition in Sfax. It was impressive the emotion it aroused, people were crying…

We also organised the shooting of a documentary. The initial idea was to give hope by filming three ex-prisoners who got out of prison and succeeded in their rehabilitation. But when we started filming, I realised that it would not be a fair representation of reality to only highlight success stories. In the end, we decided to make an investigative film: to deal with the phenomenon of rehabilitation but to treat it from all angles. We filmed with experts, people who didn’t “succeed” and who reoffended, people who succeeded in their reintegration, people who tried to leave for Italy… We have a lot of material, and now we are preparing the editing. This film deals with many taboos. But in the end, we end up with solutions, perspectives…

Finally, we also had the opportunity to work with the ARTE television channel [Franco-German channel]. They asked me to talk about the project, as they were preparing a subject on violent extremism and wanted to deal with it in relation to detention in Tunisia and reintegration. ARTE asked to accompany us in a filming with the detainees; they also came to film the exhibition I mentioned before. ARTE has since called me back, and they want to film even more of the project that we are carrying out with Art Acquis: they were very interested.

Why do you think it is necessary to carry out this project?

This project is necessary because the situation in prisons in Tunisia is horrendous. People don’t want to hear about prisons. But they don’t know that the crime rate, illegal emigration, violent extremism… it’s the result of people coming out of prison without any chance of rehabilitation. They are literally thrown into an unforgiving society. And we leave them like that. We think we have to do something at our level.

And then, what happens within the walls… Tunisia has signed all the human rights conventions there is but does not apply anything. The legal system is catastrophic, I’m thinking of the young people in Kef who got thirty years for a joint [decision at first instance, since then the sentences have been greatly reduced to 2 years]. Prisons in Tunisia are synonyms with violence, overcrowding, mixing of inmates… Prison is a school for crime.

Many methods have been tried: training of officers, advocacy to change the laws… In my opinion, rehabilitation starts in prison. You have to prepare the prisoners before they get out. I think the best method we have found is art and culture, the prisoners who were involved in the “Perspectives” project, it was a real rebirth for them. Learning to express themselves, to position themselves in society… A prisoner who was taking part in a theatre workshop once told me: “Before, I only thought about my lawyer, the judge, what was going to happen to me… Now, I think about my character, my text, how to interpret it. It allows them to think about something else”. And officers have confirmed that it has had a strong impact on many prisoners.

What is the situation in the Sfax prison today (prison population, detention conditions, etc.)? What is the profile of the inmates (socio-economic profile/criminal background) that you have been able to work with in the framework of the project?

The prison of Sfax is in a rather good state but it has not been optimally adapted. You have good and bad prison officers, some abuse their power, etc. And the overcrowding of the prison is a problem. It is extreme. In a dormitory of 40 or 50 places, you have 120 prisoners. Some sleep in the rows, under the beds…

For the workshops, we managed to have a variety of profiles, always based on whether or not the prisoners wanted to participate. We also thought about the activities and the experience of each person, in mezoued [traditional Tunisian folk music], theatre, painting…

Among the people who took part in the project, there were people with 20 or 30 year prison sentences, people known for their links with the Ben Ali family, people who are here for drug use or trafficking, for unpaid cheques… But afterwards, our strategy was never to ask people about their background but to let them tell us about it if they wanted to. We never ask questions.

What was the feedback from the prisoners and prison officers who participated/are participating?

It goes well with the General Committee of Prisons and Rehabilitation (CGPR), and also with the management of the Sfax prison. The director has even made proposals to us to enhance the work of the workshops. He sometimes acted as a mediator when the prison officers did not want us to do this or that.

What change(s) would you like to contribute to through your action?

I want everyone to have access to culture, everyone is an artist but doesn’t know it. They have enormous energy. Instead of locking them in a room, give them what they need to paint, a microphone, a stage and you’ll be amazed. If I want to change something, that’s what it will be, access to culture for all prisoners at all times. Even in terms of employment, it can give opportunities to prisoners when they get out…

We also need to change the way society sees ex-prisoners: the guy who made a mistake shouldn’t be punished twice. We have to accept people and change this prejudiced mentality.

What reforms do you think are needed in the penal and prison sectors?

Firstly, a reform to Law 52 [on drug use and trafficking] is dramatically needed. Then also to ensure that the CEDIS system [Centre de Défense et d’Intégration Sociale] is more efficient in order to make the link with companies and associations that need an intermediary. We need to create a real reintegration system, otherwise the only option is the harraga [literally “those who burn”, the name given to migrants who illegally attempt the crossing to Europe]. I myself have known detainees who prepare to leave even before their release.

What is the role of civil society organisations in prisons? How do you think this civil society/prison dynamic can be made sustainable?

The associations must keep their promises when they come to prison, otherwise it will be difficult to gain the trust of the prisoners. In the end, when you come to prison, it’s like giving light to a blind man. And besides, the only accounts we have to give are to the prisoners. So, in general, you have to be very demanding when you select the associations that work in prison, it’s a very big responsibility.

For my part, in terms of sustainability, I would like the “Perspectives” project to be a pilot project and to be extended to the rest of the prisons.

The L’Alternative project is funded by the European Union

JUSTICE NOW ? Tackling legacies of Europe’s colonial past in the wake of Black Lives Matter

>> Visit the conference website <<   >> Register for the symposium! <<

ASF co-organizes an interdisciplinary conference with the Anthropology Department at MIT, and the European Network Against Racism from the 22nd to the 26th of March 2021. Over the course of five half-days, scholars, activists, and policy makers from Africa, Europe and North America will address issues related to Europe’s colonial heritage and the global demands for justice in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests. Participation is free but registration is required.

The Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the US in the summer of 2020 following George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis also sparked mass uprisings against systemic racism across Europe. These protests not only expressed solidarity with the American movement, but also called for European states to examine their own structural, race-based inequities, as well as their colonial pasts in Africa and the legacies thereof. Building on decades of anti-racism activism, Afro-diasporic and other activist groups in Europe have made demands ranging from the removal of statues of colonial figures and the renaming of public spaces, to the return of artifacts  taken from African colonies and held in European museums, and financial reparations for the violences of colonization.

These demands have begun to yield fruits. In Belgium, for instance, a Special Commission tasked with examining Belgium’s colonial past in the Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi was established in July 2020. And, in a major step in the contemporary fight against racism and discrimination in the European Union, the EU’s 2020-25 Action Plan, delivered in September 2020, asserted the link between colonialism and the perpetuation of stereotypes and discrimination in European societies.

As these movements against racism unfold across North America and Europe, what does examining them transversally — across geography, history, and domains of practice — make visible about present opportunities for addressing Europe’s colonial past in Africa and its contemporary legacies? How might actions in different countries and regions amplify one another? What mechanisms are available in and across the arenas of law, policymaking, community organizing, and the arts for obtaining redress for these harms? What lessons can be carried over from historical undertakings?

This symposium, convened by the Department of Anthropology at MIT, in collaboration with Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF), aims to provide a platform for scholars, activists, and policymakers from Europe, North America, and Africa to tackle these questions. Over the course of five half-days of virtual panels and roundtable discussions, experts in areas such as transitional justice, racial justice, colonial and decolonial studies will share their experiences in the development of anti-racist and decolonial movements in and across their respective contexts.

The present moment offers a historic opportunity to both investigate and support anti-racist and decolonial efforts across national contexts and arenas of practice. We warmly invite you to join us in this cross-disciplinary gathering. Please direct inquiries to conveners at

Register for the symposium! You can see the preliminary program here.

Continue reading “JUSTICE NOW ? Tackling legacies of Europe’s colonial past in the wake of Black Lives Matter”

Between walls – Walid Bouchmila (Horizon d’Enfance) : “When you make a project in prison, you really have to think of everyone”.

Between walls – Omar Ben Amor (Art Acquis) : “Access to culture to every detainee at any time”

*The Alternative project is funded by the European Union*

Interview with Walid Bouchmila, president of the association Horizon d’Enfance.

Within the “Projet Alternative”, implemented by Avocats Sans Frontières and ATL MST SIDA, Horizon d’Enfance sets up cultural activities at the Gabès prison, training courses for prison staff and qualifying training courses (plumbing, plastering, culinary arts and pastry making) for prisoners. The latter also benefit from training in entrepreneurship, support in setting up micro-projects and psychological follow-up to prepare for release. The overall objective of the project is to contribute to the rehabilitation and reintegration of the inmates of the Gabès prison.

Can you introduce yourself and present the work of Horizon d’Enfance?

I am Walid Bouchmila, social worker by training and president of Horizon d’Enfance. Our association takes care of children who live in the street, and offers social, psychological and educational support to these young people and their families. The idea is to achieve economic emancipation and the social empowerment of those families.

What is the work of Horizon d’Enfance in prisons? Why do you think it is necessary to carry out this project?

When working with these young people, we ask them: “How did you get to this point? ». And many of these young people tell us that one of their parents (often the father) is or has been imprisoned. The absence of the parent has facilitated the precarious situation of these families. Therefore, if we want to work on this, we need to work with the persons incarcerated as part of a reintegration process and to prevent recidivism and delinquency.

If we are carrying out this project, it is to help families, especially from an economic point of view, through the work integration of fathers. The final objective is to get out of vulnerability.

What is the situation in Gabès prison today (prison population, conditions of detention etc…)?

The amount of detainees vary a lot: when we started working in Gabès prison (in January 2020, editor’s note), there were 300 prisoners. We saw this figure rise to 600, in particular because Gabès prison was one of the prisons that received new detainees for quarantine during the first wave of COVID-19. At the moment, there are around 400 prisoners, only men. It is planned that Gabès prison will eventually build a pavilion to accommodate women.

As for the conditions of detention, the prison has had to refurbish many of the spaces initially dedicated, for example, to theatre and cinema workshops. These spaces have become quarantine reception areas for new detainees.

Overall, overcrowding is still the norm at Gabès prison; although to my knowledge there have been very few cases of COVID in the prison – only two people diagnosed at the time of their quarantine. Today, the situation is much the same – in terms of the health measures applied – with a strengthening in recent days after a certain slackening during the second wave.

What is the profile of the detainees (socio-economic profile/ criminal record) that you have been able to meet in the framework of the project?

There are all kinds of profiles in Gabès prison, from people who can’t read or write to the head of a bank branch. In terms of sentences, this ranges from a few months in prison to life imprisonment; and the inmates range from 18 to over sixty years of age. Globally, all social categories are present, with a majority of young prisoners (under 40 years old), often there for sentences of 3 to 5 years maximum and for offences related to drugs, theft, fights… The rate of recidivism is very high, it is about 40% from what we have seen.

What activities have you implemented to this date?

We have implemented training courses for prison staff, completed cultural activities (film, theatre and music workshops). Today, qualifying training courses are underway in plumbing, plastering, pastry making and culinary arts. At the end the trainees will have an examination to certify their skills – we still need to discuss with the Directorate General for Vocational Training and the prison how we will pass these tests (in or out of the prison).

Then, depending on who is going to be released soon, we will help to prepare the release with the prisoner and the family and support them to create a micro-project. Prisoners will also have entrepreneurship training and coaching by the psychologist to prepare them for release.

What has been difficult has been the selection of the prisoners who were going to participate in the qualifying training because only prisoners who have already been judged are entitled to it, not the others [pre-trial detainees]. Pre-trial detainees make up the majority of the prison population. Many of the prisoners on trial have very long sentences, so there is no point in training them now. We have therefore done our best to work with prisoners who are more or less released within the project’s timeframe, although this does not represent the majority of our beneficiaries.

What has been the feedback of prisoners and prison officers who have participated/are participating in the project?

The reactions are very positive from the prisoners’ side: training courses such as cultural activities are very much appreciated, especially because they allow them to have some time to be free and busy, in a prison where there are generally very few activities to do. As for the prison staff, they were resistant at first because we were the first association to enter the prison. But little by little we managed to gain their trust. They became aware that the project was beneficial for them as well as for the prisoners. They came to appreciate our work and today we are well received.

The question is the sustainability of the project. There are prison officers who attend the qualifying training courses in order to be able to take over afterwards. But the prison management explained to us that the staff numbers were too small to really allow us to detach someone from the staff to do this. Also, what we noticed was the lack of sports activities within the prison, a lack that we should try to cover via another project for example. We could also do other training courses. And at the prison of Gabès, there is a large piece of land of two or three hectares that could be used for an agricultural project.

What is the feedback from Horizon d’Enfance?

I will answer in two parts. If I had been asked the question eight months ago, I would have had a rather mixed answer. Indeed, the beginning of the project was very chaotic, we encountered many obstacles and we were not used to working in such a “restrictive” framework. Everything had to be planned, validated at the central level… It also took a long time to sign the agreement. But now everything is going well: access to the prison is easy, even without an appointment you can come to the prison; we are very involved in the work of the prison. One of the heads of department even said to me “I consider you a colleague”. For our part, we have understood the problems of the prison staff, their reticence towards us; the officers often feel wronged, they have the feeling that the judges are rather on the side of the prisoners if there is a problem and they have the impression that the projects that have been set up are always for the prisoners.

When they saw our project and realised that they had not been “forgotten”, they realised that it would be beneficial for everyone. When you do a project in prison, you really have to think about everyone.

To what change do you wish to contribute through your action?

There needs to be an awareness of the importance of cultural activities, sports etc. in the prison to reduce tensions between prisoners and prison staff. In fact, we have managed to set up a partnership with the Gabès Drama Centre: a drama teacher gives classes in the prison, and we have managed to ensure that this activity is maintained after our visit.

The staff themselves say that the activities have a very positive impact on the atmosphere in the prison. Also, the training in culinary arts has improved the quality of the meals: the inmates in training cook for everyone one day a week. This is very much appreciated, as are the cakes that come out of the baking workshops every day.

What was the impact of the health crisis linked to COVID-19 in prison during the first and second waves?

During the first wave, there was a ban on access, which caused a total shutdown of activities. But we were the first to resume our activities. During the second wave, we were able to continue our activities normally.

What reforms do you see as necessary in the penal and prison system?

What is needed is to reduce the prison population, for example by setting a maximum number of prisoners in prison. We also need to avoid putting people in prison in pre-trial detention as much as possible and encourage judges to hand down alternative sentences. The probation office in Gabès is not yet very operational, only a few people are monitored there. I haven’t seen any major progress in this office, but this is probably due to the means at their disposal. And the dynamics take time to change…

What is the role of civil society organisations in prisons? In your opinion, how could this civil society-prison dynamic be integrated into sustainable action?

Civil society has a very important role. Our project was able to bring a very positive dynamic within the prison of Gabès, we even had proposals from the staff for other project ideas. The role of the civil society is also to help the prison staff to improve their work in order to provide better care for the inmates. What is really needed is a balance between activities for prisoners and activities for staff.

Now we need to build this dynamic over time. We know that in Gabès, other civil society organisations would be interested in working with the prison, within the prison. As far as we are concerned, we don’t yet know if we will be able to continue access after the project (access agreements in prison are limited in time, editor’s note). Perhaps it should be the prison directors who can establish conventions? Should this prerogative be decentralised to the regional level?

The L’Alternative project is funded by the European Union

ASF joins the “Poverty is not a crime” campaign

ASF joins the Open Society Foundation, APCOF, PALU, and ACJR in a campaign to promote the decriminalisation and declassification of minor offences. “Vagrancy”, “disorderly behaviour” or “idleness” remain valid grounds for arresting and imprisoning individuals, contributing to the endemic overcrowding of prisons throughout the world. Particularly affecting people in vulnerable situations, these laws and their application are both arbitrary and discriminatory. 

In many countries on the African continent, such offences date back to colonial times. But while these laws have been repealed in the former colonial powers, they remain in force in many African states. 

By providing a criminal response to socio-economic issues, vulnerable populations are further marginalised. Maintaining these minor offences in the penal code therefore fuels a vicious circle. In many countries, the criminalisation of minor offences is one of the main sources of prison overcrowding. Decriminalising these offences and ending the detention of people who are not a danger to public order is the only way out in the long term.

Within the framework of the Poverty is Not a Crime campaign, several organisations have united to decriminalise these minor offences. Advocacy actions are being organised at national and regional level, mobilising ASF’s teams and partners.

Following an interpellation launched at the initiative of the Pan-African Lawyers Union (PALU), the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights ruled unanimously on December 4th 2020 in favour of the decriminalisation of minor offences. It declared these laws and regulations incompatible with the African Charter, the Children’s Charter and the Maputo Protocol. It is in accordance with this opinion that it ordered the States concerned to review, repeal and, if necessary, amend these laws and regulations.

The criminalisation of minor offences is incompatible with the constitutional principle of equality before the law and non-discrimination. It has a considerable impact on the poor, vulnerable people and women and infringes on many of their freedoms, including freedom of movement and freedom of expression.

Following the positive decision of the African Court, ASF joins civil society organisations to call for the repeal of such offences and all forms of unjustified repression. 

Join the campaign

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A dire need to integrate human rights in the Covid-19 crisis management

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.

It was also repeatedly observed that the measures adopted were unclear, both in terms of their scope over time and in terms of their content. Failure to comply with social distancing or containment measures has often been criminalised, repeatedly undermining the principle of legality for offences and penalties. In Indonesia, for example, sanctions have been imposed by administrative authorities – rather than national representation – and sometimes with no legal basis. Much room has been left for interpretation by the security forces, allowing arbitrariness and potential abuse, particularly in states that are already heavily policed. In some cases, authorities did not hesitate to use Covid-19 measures to further restrict civic space and silence human rights defenders.

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.

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The DRC must pay off its debt to victims of mass crimes

Why do so few victims in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) receive reparations even as the number of convictions for international crimes continues to rise? A policy brief produced by ASF, Trial International and RCN Justice et Démocratie gives details of excessively lengthy and complicated procedures. The document, endorsed by around thirty civil society players and international partners, denounces a “facade of justice” that fails to meet the requirements of international law.

The DRC has stepped up its efforts to combat impunity since early 2000. Almost twenty years later, the results are mixed. Congolese courts, which are essentially military courts, have examined more than 50 cases involving war crimes and crimes against humanity. They have issued many convictions and ordered that reparations be paid to victims.

This facade of justice has been undermined, however, by the very few reparations measures that have actually been implemented. According to data collected, Congolese courts have ordered that close to 28 million dollars in total be paid in damages and interest to more than 3.300 victims. The reparation orders were made when the accused was found guilty as well as the Congolese state, in solidarity, for failing to protect its population. Yet to this day, it seems that only one reparation order has actually been carried out.

A detailed policy brief proposing specific measures

Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF), Trial International and RCN Justice & Démocratie are publishing a policy brief intended for the Congolese authorities in order to understand why reparations systematically fail to be paid.

Apart from issues relating to political will, the policy brief focuses on jurisdictions where reparation orders have not been complied with, which can largely be explained by the cumbersome nature of the procedure for enforcing reparation orders. The process involves a considerable number of steps and points of contact in jurisdictions and administrations that are severely hampered by red tape and corrupt practices.

We hope that the policy brief will open the door to constructive discussions with the authorities,” explains Daniele Perissi, Head of the Great Lakes Program at TRIAL International. “That is why our document includes a set of specific, realistic recommendations on how to ensure that victims receive their due.”

A deeper debate on transitional justice

While the procedure is undeniably in need of reform, both the amount and structure of the State debt call reparation arrangements into question. Under international standards, such arrangements must also offer the possibility of non-monetary measures.

Among other things, the situation is a stark reminder that the DRC must commit to a genuine policy of transitional justice and that its criminal justice system alone cannot bear the burden of ensuring that victims of mass crimes receive justice.

The health crisis in Belgium: A breeding ground for indirect discrimination?

Avocats Sans Frontières publishes a study on the indirectly discriminatory impact of Belgian emergency policies on certain categories of the population, particularly vulnerable ones. The analysis, carried out as part of the project ‘Covid-19 Monitoring and Rule of Law’, relies on observation activities, as well as a set of interviews conducted by ASF in June and July 2020.

To limit the spread of Covid-19, the Belgian government took, at the start of the health crisis, a set of measures contained on March 23rd 2020’s ministerial ruling, aiming to reduce contact between people and imposing a general lockdown. [1]

These measures, seeming neutral at first, because applicable to the entire population, however indirectly had discriminatory consequences, in their enforcement on certain groups of vulnerable people. [2]

Several interviews conducted with social workers, mediation and surveillance bodies active in Belgium during the lockdown, as well as a documentary analysis; revealed that immigrants, prison inmates, homeless people, women victims of violence, the elderly and the handicapped, those economically vulnerable, and those living in deprived neighborhoods, indeed suffered more than others from the emergency sanitary measures.

This is due, partly, to a uniform response to the crisis, which only exacerbated pre-existing socio-economical inequalities. It is also imputable to differences in the enforcement of the measures, more severe on certain social groups.

In the first instance, the interruption or limitation of access to social assistance, to visas and asylum, caused by the generalized closure or digitization of essential services, has had the effect of further weakening the already vulnerable segments of the population to whom these services are addressed. This freezing of services has also triggered a ‘domino effect’, best illustrated by the emergence of a new population of homeless people who were unable to assert their economic and social rights during the lockdown period. Beyond the interruption of essential services, the general lockdown decided by the government has further degraded the condition of certain groups of people, hence not affecting the entire population in the same way. Those who could not stay “at home,” those held in prisons or detention centers, those in shelters, the homeless, and women victims of domestic violence due to lack of decent and safe housing paid a greater price. For them, compliance with lockdown measures has sometimes violated their human rights, such as the right to dignity or the prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment. In other cases, lockdown was physically impossible.

In the second instance, indirect discrimination was also induced during the police checks of compliance with lockdown measures. Such abuses were observed on several occasions and appeared to result both from the vagueness of the government’s measures and from a significant scope for interpretation left to the police. Cross-analysis of the incidents collected during the interviews, supplemented by documentary monitoring, revealed a practice of profiling in the application and monitoring of measures, or at least a tendency to target certain groups of people more heavily based on their membership in specific social strata and ethnic groups, or specific neighborhoods and areas.

As the European Court of Human Rights instructs, such discrimination, if it can be proven, entails the responsibility of the Belgian State. Indeed, the latter did not take into account the existing inequalities within society when managing the crisis and did not qualify the measures to protect these categories of vulnerable people, by amplifying economic and social differences.

Author : Flavia Clementi

[1] Text available at .

[2] Measures that are neutral in their formulation may nevertheless have discriminatory effects on certain groups of people when implemented. These discriminations are classified as ‘indirect discrimination’ by European and Council of Europe law.