September 14, 2023

The campaign to decriminalise poverty, activism and status

BelgiumCentral African Republic (the)Congo (the Democratic Republic of the)MoroccoNiger (the)TunisiaEconomic, social and cultural rightsFreedom of expressionHuman rights defendersMigrationSecurity and freedom

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.

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