Friday, March 29, 2013

Fair Justice for All

For the first time, representatives of the government of Burundi participated in a Global Rights forum that addresses critical shortcomings in the justice system in that country.

Edouard Minani, Coordinator of Institutional Support to the MoJ
Last week,  Global Rights Burundi and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) in Burundi gathered representatives of the MoJ, judges, and prosecutors together with civil society leaders and lawyers to discuss practical means to reduce judicial delays in general and the need to reduce impunity for rape and other gender-based violence specifically.  I had the opportunity to take part in this gathering and was truly inspired by the collaboration Global Rights was able to facilitate.

Officials from the MoJ shared with us their newly gained appreciation for the value of strategic litigation, particularly the impact such litigation can have to create precedence.  Additionally, they, with the rest of those in attendance, came to the understanding that if done well, strategic litigation is an effective tool for greater efficiency in the administration of justice.

We have been working with human rights organizations and lawyers over the past year to use strategic litigation to tackle systemic obstacles to access to justice – government inaction or delayed government action that results in denial of the right to a fair hearing due to unreasonable judicial delays and the failure to conduct effective investigations of gross human rights violations.

Our USAID-funded project has provided substantive law and skills training, practical mentoring, and financial assistance to improve civil society’s understanding of and ability to use strategic litigation as a means to highlight these systemic human rights violations.  

Indicative of the scope of fair trial violations, Burundi has a judicial backlog of nearly 60,000 cases.  Participants identified opportunities to make better use of Burundian laws in areas of interpretation and implementation, for example, that could reduce delays. The meeting developed concrete measures using specific provisions of Burundian law that are often overlooked by practitioners, which, if utilized could reduce delays.

Group work on legal aid
An important part of the forum focused on prosecution of rape cases. Participants acknowledged that widespread use by prosecutors and judges of the vaguely defined misdemeanor of “domestic rape“ has resulted in impunity for perpetrators of serious offenses through the imposition of extremely lenient sentences attached to this charge. Article. 554 of the criminal code reads: “Whoever is charged of ‘domestic rape’ shall be sentenced to 8 days of imprisonment and fined five (5) to twenty seven (27) US dollars or one of these two punishments.”

Representative of the urgency to effectively address gender-based violence, over 100 rapes are reported each month in Bujumbura alone.  There are no accurate statistics on the number of unreported cases.  Officials widely recognized the need to clarify the law to better ensure justice for survivors of rape.

I came away from the two day intensive dialogue and exchange of ideas knowing that our partners in the MoJ, prosecutors and civil society legal practitioners will be putting their action plans into practice.  Their commitment to carry on this work is clear – they are proud of their profession and they are determined to ensure that every Burundian citizen should enjoy an effective and fair justice system.


Posted by Susan M. Farnsworth

Monday, March 18, 2013

Equality for Ethnic Minorities

More than 65 ethnic groups call Uganda home—65! Living in a country so diverse, Ugandan civil society organizations agree that ethnic tensions are present, significantly as a result of discriminatory practices by the government.  However, the government denies the existence of any such ethnic discrimination. 

Most recently, development of the country’s oil resources has exacerbated tensions between those ethnic groups that stand most to benefit from newly found riches and those that are excluded. Although oil development will bring additional wealth to the country, ethnic minorities– those that do not have access to power or decision making – are excluded from what should be a shared benefit for all.

As you can see, the topic of ethnic minorities in Uganda is complex. I’ve witnessed this firsthand while visiting our Uganda country office and partners this past week.  During my trip, I attended the final workshop of our project for the development of advocacy strategies on key human rights issues for ethnic minorities.

The project, funded by the Ford Foundation, has made tremendous progress in one year, evidenced by the high level of workshop participation this past Thursday and Friday.  The 24 participants did a deep dive into the two advocacy campaigns that had been identified in the previous workshops – access to land and access to education for ethnic minorities.  Those campaigns have gained depth and commitment as a result of the project.   And, an informal network has even formed among the participants that includes two key state institutions, the Ugandan Human Rights Commission (UHRC) and the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC).

I was truly impressed by the honesty and the transparency of the conversation. The willingness to share personal stories with others in the room underscored the trust that Global Rights Uganda has built with the participants.  They recognized that to move this work of advancing the rights of ethnic minorities forward, there needs to be a more open dialogue rather than conversations behind closed doors that only deepen tensions. 

I’m excited to see the momentum grow. My hope is that this work will be able to develop and expand, bringing together even more civil society and government officials who are committed to change the discourse and open up dialogue. This is critical if Uganda wants to ensure a fair and equal access to all its citizens. 


Posted by Susan M. Farnsworth