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.

Development of regional approaches: The regional hubs

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

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.

Annual report 2022

(French) Press release – 11 years of waiting, violated rights and illegality in Central Kongo, the province is still waiting for compensation from oil extraction companies for environmental damage

(French) Press release – Destabilisation, a strategy to block the effective implementation of the ministerial decree on the creation, organisation and functioning of the Muanda Territory Concertation Committee

Perenco: The social and environmental impact of the French oil company’s activities abroad

Perenco has been in the news for several weeks. An environmental investigation carried out by EIF (Environmental Investigative Forum) with the support of the media Investigate Europe and Disclose has led to the publication of damning information on the French company’s activities in the Democratic Republic of Congo[1]. And the NGOs Sherpa and Friends of the Earth have taken legal action against the company for failing to carry out due diligence on its oil exploration and extraction activities abroad[2].

Poor governance in the management of natural resources, conflicts of interest, pollution and environmental damage linked to its activities, failure to involve the affected communities in the decision-making processes linked to the management of their land, lack of accountability with regard to the normative framework in force, etc. The list goes on.

In the field, Avocats Sans Frontières has monitored numerous violations of the fundamental rights of communities affected by the poor governance of natural resources linked to the company’s activities, particularly in the Muanda territory in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Several studies and reports (RENAD, CEPECO, CCFD-Terre Solidaire, and even a report by the Congolese Senate) reveal devastating practices, both for the environment and for the health and livelihood of local communities[3]. Among the violations reported: infringements of the right to a healthy environment, the right to health, the right to work and the right to dignity.

In the Muanda territory, the company has build power dynamics that systematically are to the disadvantage of local communities. The company does not fulfil its obligations under Congolese law and does not respect relevant international principles.

There are serious failures to consult and dialogue with the populations affected by its activities. The company has refused to respond to letters and requests for meetings from various civil society organisations and community members on many occasions.

The company famously refused to be involved in the discussions that took place during a round table organised in Kinshasa in July 2022 on the theme of natural resource governance which was attended by local, institutional and civil society actors.

This is a clear violation of Congolese law, which requires Perenco to consult the various stakeholders, including the affected communities.

In this regard, ASF commends the action initiated by Sherpa and Friends of the Earth before the French courts for ccological damage.

ASF would like to remind all stakeholders, including economic actors, the Congolese state and local representatives, of their obligations and their duty of accountability, in particular to promote and ensure a system of governance based on the fundamental rights of local populations.

In this regard, ASF makes the following recommendations:

– Implement the ministerial decree that organises the functioning of the mechanism for managing funds dedicated to community development (Cecetem);[4]

– Implement the ministerial order for the implementation of a follow-up to the recommendations of the tripartite round table (communities, companies and government);[5]

– Strengthen the mechanisms for collecting and processing community complaints, particularly by making them transparent and accessible to all;[6]

– Strengthen the state’s technical services to ensure transparency throughout the oil and gas industry’s value chain and to suppress all forms of impunity for economic actors. 

ASF’s action and role regarding Perenco’s activities

The multinational oil company has been under scutiny for many years because of the opaque and controversial management of its activities in several countries.

ASF, in partnership with Sherpa and Friends of the Earth, had tried in vain to demand that the company be transparent about its activities abroad. 

In 2018, ASF submitted a complaint to the French National Contact Point (NCP) of the OECD to ensure that the company fulfils its duty of transparency in relation to its oil and gas exploration and production operations. In March 2021, ASF and IWatch finally decided to withdraw from the procedure, highlighting the structural dysfunctions of this tool from the OECD[7].

In January 2022, the French NCP published its final statement in which it specified that Perenco did not comply with several recommendations of the OECD Guidelines regarding its activities in Tunisia, in the Kebili region.

The NCP made a series of recommendations to the company:

– Perenco must comply with its due diligence in its exploration and exploitation activities;

– Perenco shall prevent and further mitigate social and environmental risks arising from the activities of its operating subsidiaries;

– Perenco should follow up on appropriate remedial or corrective actions in the event of adverse environmental, labour and human rights impacts, including through the transparent sharing of information on its activities[8].

Avocats Sans Frontières reaffirms its commitment to the fight against the impunity of economic and industrial actors. In the field in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tunisia or Uganda, our teams continue to support and accompany communities affected by human and environmental rights violations suffered in the context of industrial extractive activities.


[1] Perenco : révélations sur les ravages du groupe pétrolier en RDC, https://disclose.ngo/fr/article/perenco-revelations-sur-les-ravages-du-groupe-petrolier-en-rdc, 9.11.2022 ; Perenco files: Les secrets toxiques d’un géant du pétrole, https://www.investigate-europe.eu/fr/2022/perenco-files-petrole/, November 2022.

[2] https://www.asso-sherpa.org/prejudice-ecologique-rdc-perenco-assignee-en-justice.

[3] Renad, Cris d’alarme des Communautes Locales : Impacts de Perenco Rep sur le cadre de vie des communautés de Muanda en r.D.Congo, https://congominespdfstorage.blob.core.windows.net/congominespdfstorage/CRIS%20D%E2%80%99ALARME%20DES%20COMMUNAUTES%20LOCALES%20(2).pdf;

CEPECO, Rapport sur l’exploitation pétrolière à Moanda Bas Congo, https://vdocuments.mx/rapport-sur-lexploitation-petroliere-a-moanda-bas-congo.html?page=1;

CCFD, Pétrole à Muanda: la justice au rabais, https://ccfd-terresolidaire.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/petrole_muanda_201113.pdf ;

Commission d’enquête sur la pollution causée par l’exploitation pétrolière à Muanda dans la province du Bas-Congo : https://www.amisdelaterre.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/201310-rapport-senat-rdc-commission-enquete-senatoriale-pollution-perenco.pdf.

[4] https://congomines.org/system/attachments/assets/000/000/792/original/Gouvernement-Sud-Kivu-D%C3%A9c-2013-Arr%C3%AAt%C3%A9-Fonds-d%C3%A9veloppement-communautaire.pdf?1440409786.

[5] https://pro.leganews.cd/ressources-naturelles/gaz-hydrocarbures/arrete-ministeriel-n008-dbn-cab-min-hyd-2022-du-02-juin-2022-modifiant-larrete-ministeriel-n-007-dbn-cab-min-hyd-2022-du-11-mai-2022-portant-creation-organisation-et-fonctionnement-du/

[6] https://asf.be/publication/press-release-ngos-call-out-to-perenco-end-the-opacity-to-put-a-stop-to-the-impunity-of-the-multinational/

[7] https://asf.be/publication/press-release-withdrawal-from-the-proceedings-before-the-french-ncp/

[8] https://www.tresor.economie.gouv.fr/Institutionnel/Niveau3/Pages/3c98c1c4-0d82-4fd2-9f7e-94b924152f2c/files/abb8db3e-2ff1-4986-b84c-ed4afeb2666c

Support Programme for the Reform of the Justice System (phase 2)

  • Objective: To strengthen the rule of law and promote democracy in the DRC
  • Expected results:
    • R1: Access to law and quality justice is strengthened
    • R2: The fight against impunity and the protection of human rights are strengthened
    • R3: The fight against corruption is strengthened
  • Provinces of intervention: Kinshasa, Equateur, Ituri, Kasaï
  • Partners:
    • Kinshasa
      • Kinshasa/Matete Bar Association in the “detention” component
      • NGO “Promotion des Droits de l’Homme et de la Justice (PRODHOJ)” in the “detention” component
    • Ituri
      • Barreau de l’Ituri in the “detention” component
      • Programme d’Actions pour le Développement Intégré (PADI) in the “detention” component
      • Réseau d’Action pour le Développement et le Progrès Intégrés (RADPI) in the “international criminal justice” component
      • Solidarité Féminine pour la Paix et le Développement Intégral (SOFEPADI) in the “community justice/MARC” component
    • Kasaï
      • Barreau du Kasaï in the “detention” component
      • Association des Femmes Juristes Congolaises (AFEJUCO) in the “detention” component
      • Forum des Femmes pour la Bonne Gouvernance et le Développement (FFBGD) in the “community justice/MARC” component
  • Funding: European Union
  • Duration: 3 years (1 February 2022 > 31 January 2025)

Promote the full and effective realisation of people’s rights in the Democratic Republic of Congo

  • Objective: To promote the full and effective realisation of people’s rights through empowerment and mechanisms for the prevention, management and sustainable resolution of conflicts in accordance with human rights
  • Expected results:
    • R1: People’s access to information, advice and legal support is strengthened
    • R2: Holistic conflict resolution mechanisms are available and strengthened
    • R3: Collaboration between local conflict resolution and judicial actors is strengthened to better secure rights
    • R4: An advocacy strategy for legal aid, particularly in its holistic aspect, is implemented
  • Provinces of intervention: Kinshasa, Ituri and Central Kongo
  • Partners:
    • Solidarité Féminine pour la Paix et le Développement Intégral (SOFEPADI)
    • Diocesan Commission for Justice and Peace (CDJP)
  • Funding: Belgian development cooperation
  • Duration: 5 years (1 January 2022 > 31 December 2026)

Putting the interests of local populations at the heart of natural resource exploitation: Transparency, accountability and protection of rights

Congo natural resources

This article was originally published in the Annual Report 2021 of Avocats Sans Frontières.

ASF has been active in the field of natural resource governance in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) since 2018.
Its activities in this area are mainly concentrated in 3 regions: in the provinces of Ituri and Haut Uélé in mining sector and in the province of Central Kongo in the hydrocarbon extraction sector.

The action implemented by ASF and its partners in these three provinces is based on the fight against corruption and human rights violations caused by the activities of the extractive industry. This action is deployed mainly through three types of activities.

(i) ASF and its partners set up awareness and information campaigns for local communities on their procedural and substantive rights, as well as on environmental issues related to the natural resource governance.

(ii) Members of affected communities are encouraged to participate in the governance of natural resources in their region and to challenge their representatives to ensure that the principles of transparency and accountability are respected.

(iii) ASF and its partners strengthen the protection of the rights of local community members through the prevention and resolution of conflicts related to the exploitation of natural resources.

Recent legislative developments are moving in this direction. In 2015, a law on the general regime for hydrocarbons was enacted. This obliges oil companies to take into account the rights and welfare of local communities and to respect sustainable environmental management. In 2018, a law was passed to strengthen the rights of local communities affected by the mining sector. It aims to put in place regulatory mechanisms to reduce the negative impacts of mining projects on human rights and to ensure that local residents benefit from the economic profits of mining through the funding of various community development projects.
A solid legislative base to promote transparent management of natural resources that respects human rights and the environment exists in the DRC, but these laws have not yet produced the desired results.

This is why ASF is conducting advocacy work with local and national decision-makers. Several advocacy actions were carried out in 2021, in particular to ensure that compensation for environmental damage caused by extractive activities is effectively paid to local communities.