Two years ago, Avocats Sans Frontières launched Justice ExPEERience, a network for the promotion of human rights, as well as an online platform of the same name to support and energise this network. This anniversary is an opportunity for us to look back at the history and mandate of the Justice ExPEERience network and its platform. A report on its first two years of activity has just been published, covering developments since its creation, its key projects and also its development prospects.
The network has expanded significantly since its launch in 2021. It now has more than 600 members working in 52 countries on 5 continents. The network wants to create more links between actors‧rice‧s in the sector promoting access to justice and human rights around the world. The aim is for them‧elle‧s to be able to share knowledge, build capacity and work on joint projects to have more impact.
The Justice ExPEERience platform has also been significantly improved. In 2022, it was equipped with a mobile application that can be downloaded to any smartphone. The platform’s interface has also been translated into Arabic, adding to the languages already available, including English and French. Developments are also underway to improve the fluidity, speed and user experience‧rice on the Justice ExPEERience platform.
Several communities of practice, coalitions and working groups have also emerged on Justice ExPEErience over the last two years. They have shared information and contributed to exchanges in public spaces, but have also been able to work and collaborate in confidential spaces to collectively develop advocacy campaigns, projects to monitor human rights violations, or strategic litigation.
- When? 5 October – 12 pm (GMT+1, Tunis) ; 1pm (GMT+2, Brussels)
- Language: French
- Free online event – Mandatory registration
This 11th ExPEERience Talk will be devoted to the Campaign for the Decriminalisation of Poverty, Status and Activism. Several of its members will present its history and how it operates. They will discuss the challenges encountered and the opportunities presented by the networking of a multiplicity of actors to tackle a global and systemic issue of such magnitude.
In many countries, criminal procedure, penal codes and policing policies continue to reflect a colonial legacy. Offences dating from the colonial era, such as vagrancy, begging or disorderly conduct, are commonly used against people already in a vulnerable or marginalised situationt (homeless people, people with disabilities, drug users, LGBTIQ+ people, sex workers, migrants, etc.), with the sole aim of criminalising what they represent in society rather than the offences they have committed. Many countries are also witnessing a narrowing of civic space and the use of criminal law to repress activism and stifle dissent. These phenomena are deeply rooted in the legislation, institutions and practices of States around the world.
During this ExPEERience Talk, speakers from several of the campaign’s member organisations will illustrate the very real consequences of these repressive laws and practices for civil society and the general public. They will also talk about the various actions undertaken as part of the campaign: joint research, litigation and lobbying actions before national and international institutions.
To date, the campaign is supported by some fifty civil society organisations from many countries. Its ambition is to create the conditions for a global change in criminal and social laws, policies and practices by adopting a transnational and multisectoral strategy.
- Khayem Chemli – Head of advocacy at ASF – Euromed region (moderator)
- Soheila Comninos – Senior program manager at Open Society Foundations
- Arnaud Dandoy – Research & Learning Manager at ASF – Euromed region
- Asmaa Fakhoury – Country director Morocco
- Maria José Aldanas – Policy Officer at FEANTSA
This article is part of ASF’s 2022 annual report.
In December 2022, according to official figures provided by the prison administration, the prison population in the 142 prisons in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) totalled 44,536. People incarcerated in the DRC are victims of serious violations of their fundamental rights, in particular those relating to respect for procedural guarantees and the right to dignified conditions of detention that comply with international standards. Around 70% of them are awaiting trial. In 4 of the country’s main central prisons (Kinshasa, Goma, Matadi and Mbuji-Mayi), the average overcrowding rate is 720%.
This alarming level of overcrowding in detention centres can be explained by the abusive use of preventive detention, slowness and administrative obstacles, structural dysfunctions in the country’s judicial, penitentiary and security systems, the absence of a legal aid system guaranteeing access to a lawyer, the lack of qualified staff, an insufficient budget and too limited access to bail.
These structural dysfunctions disproportionately affect people in vulnerable situations, particularly those in vulnerable socio-economic situations.
In response, ASF, in partnership with local partners, is strengthening access to justice for the most vulnerable populations in detention in the DRC. In 2022, ASF worked in close collaboration with the Bar Associations and civil society organisations active in the prison environment, and intervened in 8 central prisons in 6 provinces (Kinshasa, Ituri, Kongo Central, Kasaï, Kasaï Oriental, and Nord Kivu).
- 1,820 detainees were identified, met and referred to the appropriate services during prison monitoring visits.
- ASF and its partners guaranteed access to first-line legal aid (via free legal consultations offered by the Bureaux de Consultation Gratuites des Barreaux) to 3,511 people in detention.
- 2,162 adult detainees and children in situations of placement in penitentiary centres received free legal assistance from a lawyer and 19 people in serious situations of vulnerability and/or psycho-medico-social vulnerability received psychosocial support after their release.
- ASF’s interventions provided capacity building and technical support to 92 lawyers and monitors in Congolese prisons.
However, the scope of ASF and its partners’ intervention remains limited given the structural nature and magnitude of the problem of prison overcrowding in the DRC. Coordinated institutional reforms are necessary. These include the need to put in place effective and credible control and accountability mechanisms, as well as to offer complementary multi-sector services to detainees. ASF and its partners are raising awareness in order to promote extra-judicial conflict resolution mechanisms and the use of local justice mechanisms to deal with minor or benign offences in order to combat the endemic prison overcrowding in the DRC.
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.
This article is part of ASF’s 2022 annual report.
In order to develop an action that best promotes its mandate and is consistent with the specific needs of the national contexts it is involved in, ASF relies on solid analyses of the issues in the countries where it operates. Being anchored in the realities of the countries is essential in order to develop contextualised expertise, to build strategic partnerships at the local level and to be able to put in place relevant and qualitative actions for the local populations.
Furthermore, the issues we address do not stop at borders and often have transnational dimensions.
To meet these requirements, ASF has been developing regional approaches for several years through its regional hubs in the Euro-Mediterranean region and in East Africa, with offices in Tunis and Kampala respectively.
These regional offices guarantee the necessary proximity to the beneficiaries of the actions and local partners in order to strengthen ASF’s presence in the region. They promote the development of their actions by building on existing expertise and networks.
The creation of these hubs is also part of the organisation’s decentralisation process. One of their functions is to strengthen the strategic dialogue between the different offices and to ensure that the perspective, experiences and expertise developed at the regional level feed into ASF’s global approaches.
The choice to prioritise the creation of these two regional offices was guided by factors both internal and external to the organisation:
- The choice to strengthen our presence in regions where we have demonstrated our added value, our ability to mobilise relevant stakeholders and our relationships with national and international stakeholders
- The presence of an ASF office with significant experience of the regional context
- The identification of transnational issues
Main functions of the hubs
1) Strategic development and guidance
The hubs provide support and guidance to existing missions, and the implementation of actions that are developed in other countries of the region or at the regional level.
2) Expertise and Knowledge
The hubs produce relevant and contextualised expertise based on data collected in the field and linked to the organisation’s advocacy strategies.
3) International advocacy and networking
The hubs provide support to networks, which will thus be able to benefit from appropriate assistance in the development, monitoring and evaluation of influence strategies. While national issues remain the responsibility of the country offices, the hub is more specifically interested in supporting networks at the international level in order to influence the development of public policies.
4) Capacity building
This involves capacity building for country teams in the region, in areas that are functional to the development of intervention strategies and on the basis of a soft peer-reinforcement approach.
This strategy of strengthening regional dynamics has proven its worth in the first year of setting up regional offices:
- Regional projects have already been launched in East Africa and in the Euro-Med region.
- This has enabled us to initiate actions at the level of regional bodies, such as the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights in Arusha.
- It allows us to develop actions in countries where we do not have a permanent team, such as Tanzania or Kenya.
- Rationalisation and pooling of human resources through the creation of regional functions, covering actions in several countries
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.