What’s the point of human rights if there is no access to remedy?

UgandaLegal aidNews

Brussels, 9 December 2013 – On the occasion of Human Rights Day on 10 December, Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF) notes that rights are not effective if so many people in vulnerable situations cannot access remedy for human rights violations. This is especially the case  in countries emerging from conflict or  in transition, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Tunisia. Faced with a situation where rights are not guaranteed, ASF is calling on governments to ensure that justice is accessible for everyone.

Protecting  human rights involved overcoming the many obstacles standing between individuals and justice. For people living in poverty  or victims of international crimes, access to justice to remedy the human rights violations they face remains extremely difficult, and in some cases, even impossible.

One major challenge is to improve knowledge amongst populations about their rights and the mechanisms in place to claim them. This is the case, for example, for many women in Nepal or Burundi, who do not know that they can seek justice for discriminatory inheritance practices or child-support payments. Or for imprisoned individuals in Uganda, where one person in three is detained well beyond the period prescribed by law.

The existence of accessible legal aid mechanisms is another condition that has to be met for human rights to be guaranteed. Yet in fragile countries or countries in a post-conflict situation, legal services are too often out of reach for most people seeking justice to claim their human rights. In Chad, there are only 90 lawyers for a population the size of Belgium (11 million). The courts are often located several days’ walk away, and the judicial system suffers from financial, administrative and political pressures.

When justice is out of reach for groups of populations living in a situation of extreme poverty, so is their ability to realise their human rights. Francesca Boniotti, Executive Director of ASF, notes that “this creates a double injustice: it’s not just that the poorest people don’t have access to justice, but being deprived of their fundamental rights aggravates their situation.” This is why the fight against poverty has to include improving access to justice. “When people have access to courts and other legal services, they can improve their living conditions by realising their human rights and having greater control over their lives”, notes Boniotti.

Yet in most countries where the rule of law is fragile, authorities struggle to establish and maintain a functioning justice system. Too often, it is civil society – bar associations and lawyers, local and international organisations – that assumes this responsibility alone. Faced with this situation, ASF is calling on governments to assume their responsibilities and to ensure that justice is accessible for all: donor countries to ensure that access to justice plays an integral part of their cooperation strategies, and developing countries, who must understand the central role of justice for human development.

The existence of sustainable mechanisms providing justice is a fundamental condition for the establishment of any democratic state and for respecting human rights. “We need to bring justice closer to the population”, affirms Boniotti. “The law and government institutions will be respected if the state is not perceived as a factor of oppression, but instead protects all its inhabitants, including those most marginalised. Access to justice must therefore be a priority on government agendas”, she concludes.