Monday, March 12, 2012

“Karibu au Burundi. Karibu. Cinq-cents francs. Merci.”

On a quick dash out of the Global Rights office in Burundi on my third work-packed day here in Bujambura, I stopped to buy a bunch of small, extremely sweet bananas from a woman sitting on the curb. She has no shoes, but the most genuinely welcoming smile. We both speak in a foreign language, I realize, and she may be using the few international words she knows (some kiSwahili, some French with a very distinct rhythm).

Burundian man carries bananas
This is Megan Chapman, Global Rights’ Access to Justice Legal Fellow, here in Burundi to help launch two in-country partnerships with local lawyers undertaking strategic litigation in the national judicial system. As I stay up late at night to struggle through voluminous tomes of the consolidated laws and codes of Burundi, daytime interactions like this one are an essential touchstone. The laws I am reading are written in a language many Burundians do not speak, let alone read. Counting the number of bananas in the basket and multiplying by the price I just paid, this woman likely earns no more than $2 per day, meaning court and legal fees are most definitely out of reach.

So, how do the many human rights guarantees in Burundi’s Constitution and the mechanisms outlined in its complex body of laws and codes translate into justice for people like this banana vendor?

These are the law-reality gaps that Global Rights’ country offices in places like Burundi confront every day. Our strategic litigation project, for example, aims to work with local partners to make creative and strategic use of the promises contained in Burundi’s Constitution, laws, procedures, and international human rights obligations to help victims of human rights abuses seek justice and reparations. The strategic goal is to illustrate and confront real barriers to access to justice through the country’s formal system: grave crimes that are never investigated or prosecuted; cases that disappear into a black hole after years of waiting and prodding and waiting some more; judgments that are never enforced.

We are lucky to work with many strong and dedicated activists within Global Rights’ offices and through our partnerships who have a deep understanding of local challenges and a vision for gradual change: teammates like Thierry Kambere, a Congolese jurist who has worked with Global Rights for six years and is about to return from Burundi to Congo to continue his access to justice work there; and local partners like Campagne pour les Droits de l'Homme (CADRHO), with whom I met today, which under the auspices of our strategic litigation project will be carrying forward a six-year-old struggle for justice and reparations for the family members of 34 people killed by the military in Muyinga province in 2006.

Global Rights’ Director of Programs, Mary Wyckoff, has analogized our access to justice work as building a bridge from two ends in hopes that someday the two ends meet in the middle. My banana vendor friend would most likely benefit from community based paralegal services such as those Global Rights’ partners provide in Uganda, Nigeria, and Morocco that focus on building awareness, conflict resolution, and access where formal institutions may be scarce. Our strategic litigation project starts on the other side of the bridge, striving to make state justice institutions more accountable to those seeking access. The theory is thus one that balances immediate solutions and long-term change.

As for tomorrow, maybe I’ll try out my first word in Kirundi when buying bananas: urakoze (thank you). 

- Megan

Posted by Megan Chapman

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