Blog Post 1: First Lessons and Impressions

By: Sara E.B. Pierre

A few months preceding my internship, I saw a news story on my Facebook page about how the President of a small country in West Africa accepted defeat after 22 years of dictatorship, but quickly changed his mind. The President’s name was Yahya Jammeh, and the country was The Gambia – where my internship was taking place in the summer. For a long time after this news, I was not sure whether the internship would happen. In the end, Jammeh was pressured enough to accept defeat and left the country. I did some more research on him before I left for The Gambia. It was only later that I found out how the Gambians I saw on my screen, cheering him in the streets, were forced to do so every time he made a public appearance. Through my work, I started to realize how he ruined the reputation and endangered the health of those he claimed to have personally healed of AIDS, and how terrifying it must have been to live in a place where any member of your family could go missing and be tortured without ever getting any answers.


The first week of May I was greeted into the New Gambia. Billboards, T-Shirts and graffiti all proclaimed, “Gambia Has Decided”. I saw people selling smartphone data plans, shoes and fruit on the side of the street, I saw monkeys waiting for a safe time to cross those same streets, and I saw vultures resting on top of the street lights. I ate mangoes every day and soaked in the sun at the beach.

On my first day of work I took multiple taxis which have designated stops, kind like the public transportation system I was used to back in Montreal. After getting lost and telling the taxi driver I was working in human rights, I was dropped off at the African Human Rights Commission. This was not actually my workplace. It was, however, as I would soon come to realize, the place our complaints (“Communications”) would sometimes be sent, seeking redress for those across the continent whose rights have been violated by their government.

Some cases and presentations I have done research for include those advancing the complainant’s right to health, right to work, right to not be tortured, right to education and to freedom of expression. These, and many more, are enshrined in a Charter I have gotten more and more familiar with over the months – the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The part that I find most impressive about this Charter (which was set up in The Gambia itself), is that it not only protects civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, but it also protects group rights (such as the right to a “generally satisfactory environment”), and lays out duties incumbent upon these same individuals and peoples.

After a very friendly Gambian woman helped me find my actual workplace, I realized it was only a short walk away from the Commission. We walked past the roundabout (adorably named “Turn Table”) and found The Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHDRA).

I was impressed with the pan-African non-governmental organization even before I arrived in The Gambia. Besides reading about their mission to defend, educate, and inform, what struck me most was how they included professional pictures of staff members, such as the gardener and cook, on their staff page. The idea that justice and the fight for human rights involves so much more than what superstar lawyers do is a big lesson that I am learning. At our staff meeting, we all had the chance to say what we had been working on, whether this had to do with the organization’s website, a conference someone would be presenting at, or making sure we have clean and running water. When everyone’s voice was heard, I felt there was transparency, accountability and fellowship. The value of these things cannot be dismissed because it reinforces the underlying truth that we, those who work to uplift the dignity of human beings, are not there to “save” or “fix” anyone; we are there to build safer and more just communities, and to empower people. And what a better way to project that vision than by reflecting it in the way we uplift our own neighbours?

The Gambian philosophy of kindness

2014-DeRoqueFeuil-GuilhemBy Guilhem de Roquefeuil

Stories of dishonest border guards and double counting money changers abound in travel forums and hostel conversations. And yet, my first exchange with Gambians proved to be a powerful counterexample. Most importantly, it was a wonderful introduction to the Gambian philosophy of kindness.

Upon reaching the Gambian border with Senegal after a six-hour ride at the back of an old Peugeot 504, I told myself: “mission accomplished, my destination is just a few kilometers away”.

Perhaps I was a bit optimistic; I still had to complete two taxi rides and a ferry trip across the mouth of the Gambia River. However, this did not seem much compared to my introduction to off-road rallying in southern Senegal.

This would have been true had my last 20 Euros not disappeared from my pocket. Whether I had lost them or a pickpocket had snatched them did not matter: Here I was, standing at the Gambian border, with no money, on a Sunday (all banks are closed), and clueless as to how I would pay the remaining taxis and ferry to Banjul.

I was already thinking of pawning some of my luggage’s content when I met Alieu and Ernest. Alieu was sitting behind the counter of the foreign exchange parlor, and told me he could lend me a few Dalasis. Seeing my hesitation, and sensing a bit of precautionary distrust, he called in Ernest, a young border patrol, to clarify. Ernest introduced himself and explained how I could find Alieu again to pay him back. I suggested to Alieu that I could give him back more than what he had lent me, but he kindly refused, explaining to me that his assistance was free, and commanded by Allah.

After exchanging phone numbers with Alieu, Ernest showed me to a taxi, told the young cab drivers not to overcharge me and to drive me safely to the ferry. He then paid for my cab fare and gave me his number, instructing me to call if anything should happen.

“But don’t worry, here in The Gambia, we are all one”, he explained standing by the cab window. And I was on my way.

Gambians practice what they preach.  After a few days, I realized that such kindness is norm in The Gambia. Every day, newly met friends and perfect strangers provide me with precious help, advice, and good humour. Tips are never asked in return. To the contrary, they are very often refused (a refresher from Montreal’s waiters, dare I remark).

Of course, The Gambia is not a perfect place. I expect that most tourists would find my assessment naïve, as annoyances and rip-offs do occur on the beaches. Furthermore, tensions underlie the country’s peace, and frustrations with the status quo are tangible as the country stagnates at bottom of the Human Development Index list.

Yet, The Gambia’s low human development is no proxy for the moral and spiritual quality of its people. This is why I became a student of the Gambian philosophy of kindness, and hope to spread the word upon my return.



Adventures in a Gambian Police Station

2013 Jean-Marc Lacourciere 2 100x150Jean-Marc Lacourcière

Today is a public holiday in The Gambia, as it is Aïd-al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. I decided to come into the office anyway, as I wanted to do some research for a blog post on the Canadian mining industry’s behaviour in Africa. Instead, I got some material for a post on a totally unrelated topic.

On arriving at the office, my colleague explained to me that he believed he had just caught our security guard breaking in. The police and the head of our security provider soon arrived. The head of security managed to get the guard, who had fled the scene, on the phone, and convinced him to turn himself in.

My colleagues then hopped in a car to go give statements at the police station, and I asked if I could come along. I was mostly motivated by curiosity at this point, but I was also a bit worried for the safety of the security guard. I have heard many stories about how brutally thieves can be treated in many parts of West Africa, and knew that the Gambian Police Force is sometimes criticized for not respecting accused persons’ rights. I didn’t think I would have to say anything at the station, but figured I should go just in case.

The station was how I imagined it: exuding a semblance of order, but still incredibly basic. About 12 men were held in a detention area right next to the reception desk, in full view for all. The men all looked in good health and were treated calmly by the officers, but the cells were dark and filthy. Also, inexplicably, in the corner of the station lay a huge pile of random objects (several bicycles, a moped, an old suitcase, a wheelbarrow, etc.) all covered in brown dust.

After a few minutes, the security guard was brought in. His name is Lamin, and he is no older than 25. He had been working at our office for a few weeks. I had chatted with him a few times and he looked like a nice guy. He was teary-eyed and had an unmistakable look of fear on his face.

The commanding officer immediately called Lamin behind the desk. He started threatening him, in English, and asked him why he had broken into our office. I have always had a tendency to act on impulse, and this time was no different. Remembering the Charter jurisprudence we studied in criminal law, and obviously not stopping to ask myself whether similar rules exist in The Gambia, I walked up to the officer and told him as calmly as I could (i.e. not all that calmly) that he wasn’t allowed to question Lamin until he had informed him of his right to silence and his right to legal counsel. The officer immediately got very agitated, and told my colleague and I, an experienced lawyer from Malawi, that he knew the law and didn’t need our advice. He then continued to question Lamin. This time, I talked to Lamin directly, and told him that he didn’t have to answer the officer’s questions. This infuriated the officer. He stormed towards me from behind his desk, threatening to charge me with obstruction of justice, and screaming at me to get out of the station. I obliged, and on my way out he continued to yell obscenities and threats at me.

While I waited outside, my colleagues had a heated argument with the officer for about twenty minutes. I was then invited back into the station. The officer had calmed down and was apologetic. He had stopped questioning Lamin, who was now sitting calmly with another officer behind the reception desk. He started explaining to me that he was frustrated because of an ongoing wave of break-ins by security guards; he felt that private security companies were either negligent in their hiring practices, or even complicit. He then told me that he had every intention of respecting Lamin’s rights to silence and to legal counsel. To prove this, he showed me the cautionary statement that was read out to suspects before they make a confession; it clearly outlined the two rights in question. I told him that, in my opinion, he should have read this statement out to Lamin before he started questioning him. The officer then offered a surprising response: suspects often change their stories once they are informed of their right to silence; the officers at his station thus sometimes question suspects before reading them the cautionary statement, because this allows them to call them out when they change their stories, thereby pressuring them to make full confessions…. My colleague and I tried to explain to the officer that this was probably illegal, but had little success in convincing him.

With hindsight, my reaction at the police station was probably far from ideal. I challenged the commanding officer’s authority too directly, and probably did not need to address Lamin to get him to understand that he didn’t have to answer the officer’s questions. I also probably was too aggressive in the way I accosted the officer. Had I interjected in a calmer tone, he may not have reacted as defensively, and we might have been able to have a discussion right away about the cautionary statement, and at what point it needed to be read to Lamin.

On the other hand, I do think I succeeded in putting an end to an illegal interrogation. As the cautionary statement suggests, under Gambian law, confessions are only admissible in court if the accused person has been informed of his right to silence and to legal counsel. The Gambian Constitution does contain a provision similar to s. 10 b) of the Charter:  s. 19 states that an arrested person must be informed of their right to legal counsel “as soon as reasonably practicable and, in any case, within 3 hours.”

« Penser comme un avocat » : Réflexions sur le raisonnement juridique

2013 Jean-Marc Lacourciere 2 100x150Voilà maintenant un mois que je suis à Banjul, en Gambie, à travailler pour l’Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa. J’ai découvert une ville côtière paisible et agréable. J’ai la chance de travailler avec des gens de partout à travers l’Afrique, dans un contexte des plus chaleureux et accueillants.[1]

Il m’est arrivé à plusieurs reprises, durant mes études en droit, d’éprouver un certain scepticisme face aux méthodes de raisonnement juridique. En bref, je trouve qu’en essayant de schématiser les réalités sociales complexes, ces méthodes finissent parfois par les masquer. Il m’est arrivé, dans la dernière semaine, de ressentir de tels sentiments suite à deux événements différents. En racontant ceux-ci, j’espère vous donner une occasion de réfléchir aux limites du raisonnement juridique, en plus d’un aperçu du type de travail que je fais ici.

La forme qui l’emporte sur le fond

La mission principale de l’IHRDA est d’offrir des services juridiques pro bono aux victimes africaines de violations de droits de la personne. Nous intentons des litiges devant  les instances internationales, telles que la Commission africaine des droits de l’Homme et des peuples, ainsi que devant les tribunaux nationaux de pays africains.

Un des dossiers sur lesquels je travaille depuis mon arrivée concerne le massacre qui a eu lieu au village de Kilwa, en République Démocratique du Congo (RDC), en octobre 2004. Suite à une insurrection mineure, les Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC) ont été dépêchées à Kilwa. Elles s’y sont livrées à d’horrifiantes exactions : tirs d’obus sur des populations civiles, torture, viols, exécutions sommaires. La Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies au Congo a estimé à 73 personnes le nombre de civils tués par les FARDC. [2] Le massacre a, en outre, été commis avec la complicité d’une compagnie minière canadienne, Anvil Mining Limited. Cette dernière possédait une mine de cuivre à proximité de Kilwa, et l’insurrection avait forcé l’arrêt de ses opérations.[3] L’IHRDA a logé une plainte au nom des victimes contre la RDC devant la Commission africaine des droits de l’Homme et des peuples.

C’est en travaillant sur ce dossier que j’ai eu un premier moment d’épatement face à mon raisonnement juridique. Une collègue m’avait demandé de consulter des affidavits de victimes. Ils contenaient des récits horrifiants.  Les victimes y racontaient les circonstances de la mort ou de la torture de leurs proches. Cependant, en les lisant, une de mes premières réactions fut de m’attarder sur ce qui m’apparaissaient être des lacunes dans leur rédaction. Certains d’entre eux semblaient contenir du ouï-dire. D’autres contenaient des opinions sur des questions médicales exprimées par des personnes sans expertise dans le domaine.

Après quelques instants, j’ai eu un petit moment d’éveil, et été assez désolé par mes réactions. Comment se pouvait-il qu’en lisant des documents relatant des événements aussi tragiques, j’aie le réflexe de m’attarder à leur conformité aux règles de preuve ? Une partie de la réponse se trouve peut-être ici : en nous forçant à prouver un événement en obéissant à des règles strictes et complexes, le droit peut facilement nous faire perdre de vue ces événements. Les victimes de tragédies comme celles de Kilwa veulent que ce qui leur est arrivé soit reconnu par un tribunal. Cependant, pour ce faire, il ne suffit pas pour l’avocate d’y inviter la victime pour qu’elle y raconte son histoire. Elle doit s’attarder à la forme que prendra cette histoire lorsqu’elle sera racontée devant le tribunal. Je crois que ceci crée inévitablement un risque que l’attention à la forme prenne le dessus sur l’attention au contenu. C’est ce qui semble m’être arrivé pour un instant.

Pour ce qui est de la qualité des affidavits, quand j’ai posé la question à mon directeur, il m’a expliqué que la Commission africaine appliquait des règles de preuve plus souples que les tribunaux canadiens : elle n’évalue pas la probité des éléments individuellement, mais dans le contexte de l’ensemble de la preuve présentée. Comme quoi l’importance accordée à la forme varie d’un système juridique à l’autre.

Les limites de l’ « activisme judiciaire »

La semaine dernière, l’IHRDA a organisé un atelier de formation sur l’aide juridique en Gambie, à l’intention des forces policières gambiennes. Une des conférencières était une juge à la Cour d’appel de la Gambie. Elle a expliqué durant sa présentation qu’à plusieurs reprises, elle avait ordonné à l’agence gambienne d’aide juridique de représenter des accusés dans des affaires criminelles. Cette affirmation a étonné plusieurs des juristes dans la salle : les accusés en question n’étaient clairement pas admissibles à l’aide juridique en vertu du Legal Aid Act de la Gambie. Lorsque questionnée sur ce point, la juge a répondu avoir été motivée par de considérations de justice, les accusés étant complètement incapables de faire valoir leur cause par eux-mêmes. Elle a, par la suite, affirmé ce qui suit : « l’agence d’aide juridique aurait pu faire appel de mon ordre en Cour Suprême de la Gambie; tant que la Cour Suprême ne se sera pas prononcée contre les ordres de la sorte, je considère que j’ai l’autorité pour les émettre. »

J’ai passé un bon moment à réfléchir à ce dernier commentaire. La juge en question s’était arrogé un énorme pouvoir. En suivant son raisonnement, un tribunal a compétence pour rendre n’importe lequel ordre qui lui semble juste, sans égards au droit. Je suis d’habitude favorable à l’ « activisme judiciaire », surtout quand il est utilisé pour faire progresser le droit pour mieux tenir compte de réalités sociales. Cependant, il m’est aussi arrivé d’être frustré en lisant des décisions où, selon moi, une juge avait ignoré une règle clairement énoncée dans un texte de loi, afin de promouvoir sa vision de la politique sociale la plus souhaitable. Entre la juge qui applique le droit et celle qui décide en fonction de ce qui lui semble juste, je suppose que la première a l’avantage d’être prévisible.

Reconnaître les limites du raisonnement juridique

Je conclus sur cette notion de prévisibilité. Le peu de temps que j’ai passé à travailler dans le domaine du litige d’intérêt public me donne l’impression que nos combats doivent être menés sur plusieurs fronts. En tant qu’outil de progrès social, le litige a certainement ses limites, et doit être combiné à la participation dans les instances démocratiques, à la mobilisation populaire, à la dissémination d’information, etc. Reconnaître les limites du raisonnement juridique, et jusqu’où celui-ci pourra la mener dans une cause donnée, est donc une habilité importante pour l’avocate dans ce domaine. Elle lui permet de savoir quand il est favorable de saisir les tribunaux, et quand  il vaut mieux de défendre une cause par d’autres moyens.

[1] Consultez le site de l’IHRDA si l’organisme vous intéresse, il est très bien fait:

[3] Les victimes ont essayé, sans succès malheureusement, de faire autoriser un recours collectif contre Anvil devant les tribunaux québécois. Pour de l’information sur les procédures judiciaires au Québec, vous pouvez consulter le site du cabinet qui a agi pour les victimes, Trudel & Johnston :

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