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.
For this 9th ExPEERience Talk, we are delighted to welcome Céline Bardet, founder of the organisation We are NOT Weapons of War (WWOW) whose mandate is to fight sexual violence in conflicts, in particular against rape as a weapon of war. She will talk about the importance, in the face of these issues, of support – particularly legal – for victims, but also of awareness-raising and advocacy on a global scale.
During this Talk, Céline Bardet will present the development process of the Back Up project, launched by WWOW in 2018. This project aims to address the three major challenges posed by war rape: the inability for victims to access appropriate services; the lack of coordination of the professionals involved; and the lack of reliable data on the extent of sexual violence in conflicts. It is a digital tool, accessible on mobile phones, encrypted and secure, which allows victims to report and transmit evidence, and professionals involved to better coordinate. After an initial pilot phase, Back Up is now being deployed in several countries, including Ukraine and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
This Talk will be an opportunity to present the genesis of the project, as well as the development and functioning of the tool. What was the process used to make it a tool that best meets the real needs of victims and that can be easily used by everyone, even in the most fragile contexts? How can we ensure the security of the data collected andthe security of the victims? What is the process for the appropriation of the tool, in wartime contexts, by local partners and victims? Céline Bardet will discuss the development methodology and the scope of this digital project, which serves not only the victims but also the collection of evidence and data and, ultimately, advocacy against sexual violence in conflicts.
Throughout the world, the pandemic has pushed people further away from access to justice. In Morocco, ASF has been relying for several years on legal clinics, set up in universities, to promote access to justice, particularly for people in vulnerable situations. Under the supervision of teachers and legal professionals, students provide legal services to the population.
During the pandemic, these structures enabled ASF and its partners to maintain the link with justice seekers, and in particular with one of their main target groups: women victims of violence. One of the perverse effects of the measures imposed to contain the spread of the virus was the consequent increase in reports of domestic violence. The limitation of movement and the closure of certain administrative services deprived victims of domestic violence of the usual care systems.
In response, the legal clinic continued to provide legal advice and guidance via telephone consultations and the What’s app. By taking into account the habits of the beneficiaries, ASF was able to maintain contact with the women victims of violence in order to accompany them during the pandemic.
The Covid-19 crisis also presented a challenge to the organisation of legal clinics. Access to prisons and protection centres, but also access to the legal clinics’ facilities was limited. To address those issues, four lawyers provided a service via different digital platforms (Zoom and Whatsapp) to receive calls from justice seekers and respond to their needs for legal advice and guidance.
The online coaching and capacity-building sessions for students were a real success. Despite some initial difficulties in adapting, the students, supported by lawyers, were able to receive complaints and provide guidance to the victims.
The legal clinics also organised mock trials via zoom, in order to prepare students for the digitalisation of the judicial penal chain (and in particular for remote trials). This activity allowed ASF to anticipate the future challenges linked to those transformations.
Myanmar, 28 March 2018 – Gender based violence (GBV) is a social and economic problem in Myanmar, for which the national criminal justice system requires new measures to respond effectively. In collaboration with ActionAid International, ASF provides technical expertise and guidance to improve access to justice for persons who are at risk and/or have suffered GBV. Lionel Blackman, member of ASF’s International Legal Network (ILN), volunteered his pro bono services to the project. He shared his experience with us.
“Many may still refer to ‘domestic violence’, but GBV is wider in its scope, not being confined to abuse in the home but also, for example, harassment in the workplace and sexual attacks by strangers in public places,” asserts Lionel Blackman (see picture).
Over the course of his three-week mission in Myanmar, he noted the inefficiency of the local justice system to provide legal assistance to survivors of GBV: “In Myanmar, the emergency number to call the police service is not fit for purpose in many areas and in many ways. There is not in existence a clearly defined and integrated State service to provide support for survivors of GBV. The criminal justice system does not have adequate mechanisms to respond to complaints at the lower end of seriousness (and some would say at any level).”
Against this background and prevailing cultural norms putting men in the ascendant over women, many non-governmental organisations have been striving to provide support for survivors of GBV. “In an effort to better co-ordinate the services being offered by NGOs and other service providers, including lawyers and health workers, a project to establish advice referral networks has been initiated by ASF in collaboration with ActionAid International for the township of Hlaingtharyar in Yangon and in Mon State”, explains Lionel Blackman.
As a leading solicitor advocate and Director of the Solicitors International Human Rights Group, his legal expertise in criminal law and international human rights were greatly beneficial to the project. His skills in designing databases were also very valuable: “This may have proved of the most practical use in advancing the mechanics of a referral network.”
Lionel observed that this assignment is clearly a success for ASF and raises hopes for fruitful cooperation in future: “Our Myanmar partners were always a delight to work with. They were responsive to advice and willing to question, learn and share. There is still more to do to move the establishment of advice referral networks forward in our target areas – but forward we did move them. In Myanmar, after generations living devoid of initiative under controlling and repressive rule, foreign interveners must try to avoid assuming control. Rather they must strive to enable that essential initiative to be taken unaided.”
Also Lionel found the whole experience very rewarding: “It is satisfying to act pro bono, especially in a country such as Myanmar, where justice systems leave a lot to be desired.”
Launched in 2010, the ILN today brings together over one thousand legal professionals from all over the world who are committed to support ASF’s international programs and its missions in the field.
Kinshasa, 13 March 2017 – ASF has come a long way since it started up its activities in Congo 15 years ago. Its aim, from the very beginning, has been to ensure that people become more aware of their rights and can enforce them. We opened our first office in Kinshasa on 12 March 2002. Since then, we’ve developed a wide range of projects that we describe below. Our network has grown nationwide, thanks to all those we have met who supported us, offering their advice and expertise, working with us in circumstances that were not always easy.
On this anniversary, it’s our pleasure to thank everyone who has walked along this path with us. We would like to thank bar associations, lawyers, civil society organisations, and those who give us technical and financial support. And we could not have done it all without our dedicated, hard-working colleagues.
We did our best to help all of those who turned to us for support. That is what makes our work worthwhile.
We have certainly made progress, though we are in no doubt there will be challenges ahead. We are ready to contribute to resolving them to the best of our ability. The needs are certainly there.
Now is a good time to take stock of what we have done, and to pave the way for the future.
ASF opens an office in Congo. Some 95 % of the population has no knowledge of the law nor of legal processes.
Intensive training for magistrates is set up in different provinces. The transitional constitution is translated into four vernacular languages.
Partnership launched with the library of the Faculty of Law, Kinshasa University.
Opening of the first ‘legal clinic’ in Kinshasa’s Kasa Vubu district, in partnership with the Women Lawyers’ Association in Congo. The clinic sees about 250 people a month to provide clear, understandable legal advice. Launch of awareness-raising and information campaigns in markets, outside churches, etc.
First mobile courts organised. Tribunals travel to remote locations.
ASF runs a regional project covering Burundi, DR Congo, Rwanda and Uganda, and campaigning against torture.
Efforts are stepped up to break the cycle of impunity in international crimes. ASF offers legal assistance to both victims and defendants in trials conducted within Congo, as well as to victims appearing at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
ASF campaigns against impunity in sex crimes, rampant throughout the country. Projects are launched to bring perpetrators to justice. These include support for local NGOs, capacity-building for lawyers, awareness-raising, legal advice and representation in court for victims, studies and publications.
ASF undertakes strategic litigation involving human rights defenders under threat, such as those involving Floribert Chebeya and the Sirforco Company in Yalisika. In contributing to bringing about justice for those involved, ASF works towards achieving sustainable legal remedies to combat the problems at stake.
ASF helps seven communities in Lisala in Equator to defend their rights against logging companies.
ASF’s Uhaki Safi project is set up to raise awareness of rights, responding to the needs of those seeking justice, and improving provision of legal services.
ASF supports human rights defenders and other civil society activists taking part in debates on democracy, to strengthen their influence and enable widespread participation in public debates during the electoral process.
ASF steps up its efforts to promote access to justice in Congo, supporting those taking part in conflict prevention and resolution, and strengthening mechanisms that can help to consolidate peace.
Brussels – On Thursday April 30th, a ‘Justice and impunity’ evening will take place in Brussels. The public will have the opportunity to watch the film “L’homme qui répare les femmes” (“the man who mends women”). This documentary by filmmaker Thierry Michel recounts the incessant fight of Doctor Mukwege against sexual violence which affects thousands of women in the East of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Jean-Philippe Kot, ASF expert in international justice tells us more about theses serious violations of human rights.
How can one explain the fact that there are so many cases of sexual violence in Eastern DRC?
Jean-Philippe Kot: Generally speaking, ‘practices of war’ pervade society and can lead to a loss of values and references. There is a correlation with armed conflicts, but it is more complex than that: reasons for sexual violence are multiple. These acts are committed in conflict situation as a weapon of war. Other reasons may be a desire for compensation in kind, or destruction of family and social structures. ‘Domestic’ sexual violence is increasing. Sexual violence can also be explained by phenomenon’s such as sexual predation, fetishism or belief. For example, some perpetrators believe that violating a child would bring them wealth, healing or luck.
Why is access to justice so difficult for victims of sexual violence?
J-P K: Victims are often unaware of their rights. There are also security issues as well as the distances between victims and justice. Victims sometimes refrain from filing a complaint due to fear of being rejected by their community. Establishing evidence is an issue due to the lack of resources. For instance, the lack of doctors and resources prevent the establishment of medical protocols which will serve as proof. Moreover, investigations are rarely immediately carried out even after the facts and testimonies are sometimes collected in a row. These practices can often lead to a situation where the real needs of victim are not necessarily taken into account, which can be problematic for the subsequent stages of procedures.
Some believe that special international and national courts should be created to judge people accused of sexual violence. Good or bad idea?
J-P K.: This could help addressing the issue provided these special courts are complementary to other courts, and conflicts of competence are being avoided. Special courts are often temporary. And ensuring the sustainability of the judicial system in DRC is essential. There are courts and tribunals; they need to be strengthened. It is a long term endeavour which our teams lead on the ground. Despite all the challenges, we also see the courage of stakeholders – victims, local organisations, lawyers or judges – involved in the fight against impunity and the recognition of victims.
ASF has been working in DR Congo since 2002, carrying out projects that aim to increase access to justice for victims of international crimes and other violations of human rights.
Practical information about the “Justice & Impunity” evening : On Thursday April 30th, 20h, Brussels, Vendôme cinema, payment in cash only. Movie in French, English and Swahili. Subtitled in French and Dutch.