Human rights defenders: indispensable agents of democracy in DR Congo

Kinshasa, 5 February 2018 – Over the current election period, there have been many constraints on the rights and freedoms of human rights defenders and pro-democracy activists in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo); this has been a source of political and social tension. Threats, arbitrary arrests, and unwarranted legal action have increased dramatically, indicating growing restrictions on the public sphere.* ASF believes that these actors play an indispensable role in any democratic process. According to Gilles Durdu, Country Director in DR Congo, “A democracy depends on the ability to freely express diverse opinions, and on the votes of well-informed citizens. The role of human rights defenders is therefore crucial at election time. They help citizens to participate effectively in the democratic debate by, for example, putting issues of public interest at the centre of the election campaign. They contribute to the vital civic education of the people, enabling them to take part in the electoral process in an informed manner and to assert their rights.” One of the essential conditions for the promotion and protection of the rights of Congolese people, therefore, is the defence of the rights and freedoms of those who give a voice to others. Since the start of the current election period, ASF has been working alongside these defenders, ensuring, for example, that they have quality legal protection when they are threatened or attacked or when their activities are criminalised, if they face legal proceedings, and/or if they are placed in detention. “As part of a project funded by the Embassy of Belgium that ended at the beginning of this year (2018), we were able to provide legal assistance to nearly 300 human rights defenders,” says Gilles Durdu. This project also assisted people who were placed in detention for participating in the public demonstrations, organised by civil society organisations and grassroots movements, to demand the organisation of the elections; and those who were arrested while simply going about their business near to where the demonstrations took place. “We took action, for example, to help twenty or so people who had been given very heavy sentences, ranging from three to twenty years in prison, following the demonstrations in September and December 2016. They were all acquitted on appeal and freed thanks to the excellent work of our lawyers and the strict application of the law by the judges,” says Gilles Durdu.** ASF is continuing its efforts to protect the rights and freedoms of defenders, within the framework of a project funded by the Embassy of the Netherlands, so that they can play a full role in the pursuit of peaceful and transparent elections, in a healthy and peaceful working environment.
* In 2017, the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office documented no fewer than 1,375 human rights and civil liberties violations connected to the elections across the whole of DR Congo, an increase of 25% compared to 2016, a year in which there were also many violations. The most frequently reported violations were attacks on the right to individual freedom and safety, freedom of peaceful assembly, and freedom of opinion and expression. Members of civil society organisations, peaceful grassroots movements, and journalists were among the main victims of these violations.
** For more on the subject, see the study Exercice et effectivité des droits et libertés publiques des défenseurs des droits humains dans le contexte pré-électoral de la République démocratique du Congo (“Exercise and effectiveness of the public rights and freedoms of human rights defenders during the pre-election period in the Democratic Republic of the Congo”) published by ASF in November 2017.
Cover picture: Yafali Elongo/AJDDH
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“Justice for All” legal clinic: a first in Morocco

Mohammedia (Morocco), 12 October 2017 – For the past few weeks, students of the Faculty of Law, Economics, and Social Sciences of Mohammedia have been informing vulnerable people about their rights and providing them with legal advice. Women who have been victims of violence, children in conflict with the law, migrants, and refugees are welcomed at the “Justice for All” legal clinic, a social and educational initiative developed by the Moroccan association “for the right to a fair trial” ADALA and ASF.This legal clinic is a great step forward for marginalised people in Morocco,” says Jamila Sayouri, president of the ADALA association “for the right to a fair trial”; “It represents an opportunity for the public as well as for those training to be lawyers.” Here, people receive information about laws and legal procedures. They are given free assistance and advice to enable them to assert their rights and gain access to independent and fair justice that conforms to international standards.
The official opening ceremony
Supervised by teachers from the university and assisted in the consultations by lawyers, the students themselves gain experience of the realities of practicing law, develop their social and interpersonal skills, and acquire an awareness of their role in promoting access to justice for all. Hasna Sakhoukh is one of the forty or so students who now take turns working throughout the week to ensure the delivery of services. According to her, “This initiative helps us to better prepare for our professional future, because we are in direct contact with the people who come to us for advice.” “In order to assist people effectively, justice actors must be well-trained. The legal clinics establish a connection between legal training and access to justice. It is essential that they work in collaboration with civil society, to ensure that people are well-informed about these services,” says Chantal van Cutsem, ASF strategic coordinator. Avocats Sans Frontières also intends to build links between universities, legal professionals, institutional actors, and civil society human rights organisations, so that they can share their experience and best practices, together propose comprehensive solutions to the problems encountered by vulnerable people, and develop joint advocacy activities. Lasting five years, this ASF and ADALA project in Morocco is funded by Belgian Development Cooperation.
Pictures: The official opening ceremony for the legal clinic took place on 28 September 2017 at the Faculty of Law, Economics, and Social Sciences of Mohammedia © ADALA
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Happy birthday and long live #ASF25!

On 14 May 1992, a group of solicitors and barristers created Avocats Sans Frontières with the aim of “defending human rights in all countries around the world”. Twenty-five years on, our ideal of ensuring access to justice for all remains very much alive. Our organisation has gained strength from its experiences through the years, its capacity for innovation, the unswerving enthusiasm of its teams and the support of its partners, who have sent us their birthday wishes in video. To discover these films, visit our website and follow us on social media throughout 2017. On this anniversary day, we look to the future with energy and enthusiasm, driven by the desire to do the best we can to serve those awaiting access to justice. Our quest to act effectively wherever needed means we are constantly evolving, be it in the subject fields we cover, the approaches we adopt or the parts of the world in which we work. For example, we are increasing our presence in Asia, where our first project in Indonesia is preparing for launch, operating alongside our activities aimed at strengthening the rule of law in Myanmar which began a few months ago. We are concerned to support legal professionals and vulnerable social groups in equal measure, and so our organisation provides assistance targeted towards specific population groups such as migrant women in Morocco, for whom a project has also just been launched. In addition, we support communities whose rights are endangered by industrial activity, including in Uganda and Tunisia. People seeking justice are actors: we strive to build their capacity to act and to defend their own rights. Today, in 2017, lawyers cannot promote change alone. Other actors have now joined us to uphold the validity of human rights, combat impunity and ensure sustainable access to justice: these include paralegals, community-based groups, health and social services, psychologists and more. Our organisation champions this holistic approach, in accordance with the Lawyering for Change conference held last December. Follow the #ASF25 campaign during the months ahead on our website and on social media. On the 14th of every month, we will share a new video and further content on the themes at the heart of our mission. And our friends, partners and colleagues, who are helping us shape our future, will share their goodwill messages and views. Thank you to everyone for your support during these last 25 years. Continue to stand with us to promote access to justice!
Video by E-Frame/Tijs Posen
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ASF opens new headquarters in Brussels

Brussels, 23 February 2017 – The start of 2017 has been marked by a sense of renewal for Avocats Sans Frontières. For the past eight years, our premises on the rue de Namur have served as the base for the work of our dedicated team, but this Monday our Brussels headquarters relocated to a different quarter of the city: avenue de la Chasse 140, in Etterbeek. Our new base is more central than ever, allowing us to remain at the heart of the capital and its affairs, with the Belgian and European institutions just a stone’s throw away. When choosing a location for our new premises, ease of access for our Belgian and international visitors – particularly those using public transport – was one of the key criteria. A new map is available on our site. Although our address has changed, our values and mission remain the same. They will always be a fundamental part of who we are, not only in Brussels but in Kinshasa, Tunis, Bangui and N’Djamena – because that is where the work of Avocats Sans Frontières and its partners in support of access to justice for the most vulnerable really takes place – in the field. Your support is more vital than ever if we are to ensure that every person seeking justice is able to assert their rights. Thank you in advance Continue reading “ASF opens new headquarters in Brussels”