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 limits to legal reform focused on the state: the case of Mali

2016 Squire MatthewBy Matthew Squire

With only a few days remaining of my internship, I am only just beginning to appreciate how much I have learned this summer.  I have had the opportunity now to work on four cases that IHRDA is preparing, several presentations, and countless other research tasks.  One thing especially that has impressed me this summer is the extent to which the organization is aware of the context in which it works, concentrating its work in key areas that appear to have realistic prospects for incremental change.

This awareness of the context is something, however, that does not seem universally shared, especially among governments from the global North working on human rights.  Some work I conducted this summer revolved around family law reform in Mali.  The reform of Mali’s family law was an initiative in which Canada was heavily involved, an involvement I still have issues and questions about.

The limits of state-focused development initiatives?

Canada’s involvement in Mali’s law reform was part of the post-cold war movement in the global North towards sponsoring democratization in the global South.

Following the end of the Cold War, building up civil society became one of the buzzwords of the international development community.[1]  USAID, the World Bank, and other development institutions began including initiatives to build up civil society in the global South as part of their operational plans. [2]  According to Professor Thomas Kelly, the Global North has become convinced that a buoyant NGO sector is key in the development of a strong democracy, both because of role of NGOs in the development of western countries, and because of the role that NGOs could play in moving away from authoritarianism.[3]

Kelly claims, however, that governments and donors from the global North “…had a particular sort of NGO in mind, even if they did not say so.  What they meant was advocacy organizations, led by Western-oriented intellectuals, lawyers, entrepreneurs, academics, and teachers, all devoted to public interest causes such as the environment, human rights, women’s issues, election monitoring, anti-corruption, and other things that we in the Global North tend to applaud.”[4]

In the West African context, Kelly highlights two side-effects of this focus.  First of all, Kelly points to disconnect between NGOs dominated by western-oriented, educated individuals and the populations they purportedly represent.  Second of all, Kelly argues that these NGOs, by being focussed on the state, tend to ignore important forms of African social organization that happen outside of a state context – organizations such as tribal groups, clans, and Islamic religious organizations.[5]

Contrary to Kelly, I believe that such disconnect and such state focus is necessary to a certain degree.  The world, like it or not, is organized today into states.  Many violations of human rights in the African context have been and are being perpetuated by states.  To remedy this thus entails change to the state, and organizations working on these issues, such as IHRDA, do have the possibility to effect change.

Where this disconnect and state focus may be more problematic is in dealing with harm inflicted on individuals by individuals, especially inflicted in the context of traditional practices.  In this context, is a focus on the state really the best way to affect change?

Case study: Mali’s new family code of 2011

Mali: a secular elite, growing influence of religious movements 

Mali inherited the principle of “laicité” when it became independent from France, with both the 1960 and 1992 constitutions proclaiming Mali a “republique laique.”[6]  In contemporary Mali, the elites of society – the bureaucrats, the career politicians, the lawyers, the civil servants – are mostly educated in state-run secular French language schools.[7]  The attitude of these elites to religious leaders is not particularly favourable.  Many of those having completed the French school system see Muslim religious scholars as old-fashioned and regressive, for example.[8]

Recently, however, the laicité of the elites is coming under increasing pressure from Islamic civil society.  Religion has come to play a much larger role in Malian society.[9]  Islam’s important place in the public sphere of Mali originates in the restructuring of the economy that colonisation brought.  In the colonial Muslim-controlled economy centered on colonial towns, conversion to Islam was often a requirement to participation.[10]  This led to conversions and an increased public role for Islam in public day-to-day life in West Africa.  Following independence, the new governments continued to tightly control Islam, as the colonizers did before them.[11]  In Mali, for example, the socialist government of Modibo Keita shortly after independence pushed Islamic organizations underground.[12]  The regime of Moussa Trauré, who came to power in a 1968 coup, attempted to use Islam for political goals, establishing the Malian Association for the Unity and Progress of Islam (AMUPI) in 1980 to control and direct Islamic energies.[13]

After the 1991 coup d’état in Mali, freedom of association was established.  In the democratic spaces that were created, Islamic organizations have taken advantage of the opportunity to finally contribute to public discourse.[14]  Since 1991, despite efforts to retain Mali as a secular state, Islamic associations began to play a much more important role in Malian politics.[15]  With the emergence of new communications technologies, easy access is provided to some Muslim leaders. [16]  In multiethnic but majority Muslim societies like Mali, Islam has come to play a powerful unifying force.

Today, compared with politicians and governments, Malians have a high degree of trust in religious and traditional leaders.[17]  In addition, this increasingly active, and trusted, Islamic civil society is advocating for a more public role for religion, in direct opposition to political elites.[18]  It is not surprising that, in this context, a 2009 Family Code reform project conducted without the engagement of Islamic civil society failed.  As Thomas Kelly commented on a similar reform of the Niger Family Code, “a legislative reform effort aimed primarily at increasing women’s standing in society opened up a field for conservative religious forces to mobilize popular discontent by entering the civil society sector – with its freedom of expression and of association – and offering a vision of Islamic cultural autonomy as an alternative to political dependence on the West.”[19]

2009 Family Code reform failure

Mali, unlike most African countries, has ratified almost all the major international human rights treaties.  International donors, among them Canada, have been funding a series of comprehensive reforms to Mali’s legal system since the country’s transition to democratic rule in the 1990s to, among other things, improve women’s rights protections.[20]

In 2009, with almost unanimity, the national assembly of Mali adopted a new family code.  This new code continued a stipulation from the post-independence that marriage was “laique”,[21] eliminated a 1962 provision that required women to obey their husbands,[22] raised the minimum age of marriage to 18 years old for both men and women (the previous minimum age for women was 15, 18 for men),[23] and provided for a legislated regime to cover successions.  This regime covering successions provided for the equal treatment of men and women in inheritance, as well as equal treatment between legitimate and illegitimate children.[24]  The previous legal regime established that married couples would refer to their own religious or customary law to determine who would get what.[25]  Under Islamic traditions, women generally inherit only half of what men inherit, and children born outside of marriage do not have any automatic rights to a succession.  The code, however, did allow for citizens to use their religious or customary law to cover successions, but to do this, they would have to create a testament with the aid of a notary.[26]

This 2009 code, despite the overwhelming support of elected members of the national assembly, was never promulgated into law.  The 2009 code was overwhelmingly rejected by the principal Islamic organizations in Mali.  Islamic organizations claimed that the 2009 vote in the national assembly was a sign of the enslavement of the government to international aid money and the international movement to liberate women. [27]   Islamic organizations signalled the need to preserve Islamic values against an onslaught of western imperialism.[28]  Faced with this opposition, the Malian president Amadou Toumani Touré refused to sign the code into law and, with the aid of a commission composed of parliamentarians and representatives of Islamic organizations, a new code was drafted.  On December 2, 2011, the National Assembly adopted the new code.  This code was promulgated into law shortly after.[29]

The 2011 family code

The 2011 family code retained the 1962 provision that required wives to obey their husbands.[30]  It also lowered the age of consent for girls to enter into marriage to 16 years old, without the consent of her parents required.[31]  The 1962 code had, in contrast, allowed girls under 18 to be married only with the consent of both parents.[32]  In exceptional circumstances, the code allows for the marriage of 15 year-old girls, so long as her father gives his consent.[33]  Compare this to the 1962 code where both the father and the mother had to give consent for the marriage of a 15 year old girl.[34]  These provisions are clearly in violation of regional and international human rights mechanisms which require that the minimum age of marriage should be 18.

The new 2011 family code also established that marriage is no longer “laique”, as the 1962 and 2009 codes provided.[35]  It legalizes religious marriages in the country, something that was of great concern to women’s rights campaigners.  The new code effectively creates two legal regimes covering marriage, one requiring the full consent of both parties in front of an officer of the state, with fines and prison sentences established if he or she violates the code, and another for religious officials that is entirely absent of such provisions.[36]   As traditional and religious marriages in Mali are normally performed without either of the future spouses present, and given local customs and conditions, especially in rural areas, that encourage marriage in childhood, this new code effectively legalizes and legitimizes forced and child marriages, a violation of regional and international human rights mechanisms.

In addition, another very controversial provision from the 2009 code was altered.  Islamic organizations complained that the lack of notaries in Mali effectively required individuals to manage their succession using the provisions of the Code.[37]  As such, the 2011 reverses the 2009 code by establishing the default succession regime as religious or customary law, only allowing those whose religion or custom is unknown or those having made a testament with the aid of a notary to make use of the egalitarian provisions of the code.[38]

The way forward? 

In Mali, foreign donors from the global North, Canada included, backed a wide-ranging series of reforms to Mali’s legal system to improve rights for women, without engaging all stakeholders in the project.  In the end, this project resulted in a legal regime where women now have less protection than they had under the 1962 code.

What is the way forward?  Thomas Kelley comments on the issue: “…having supported the implementation of structures that permit, even encourage, open, society-wide debate about the nature of justice and governance, it is impractical, and frankly unseemly for westerners to attempt to intervene when we disapprove of the principles and structures that our ostensible tutees have devised.” [39]

In a 2011 publication by the NGO Focus on Land in Africa, the authors suggest to advocate’s for women’s rights that legal change should not outpace social change: “Advocates for women’s rights must be willing to invest time in understanding local norms and their rationales, working with women and their communities to envision the changes that are important to them, and devising workable solutions to achieve those ends. While such an approach may be iterative, slow and fraught with set-backs, it is also less prone to fierce resistance or conflict and is more likely to appropriately serve women’s interests.” [40]

 

 

[1] Thomas Kelley, “What!  That’s Not What We Meant by Civil Society!: Questioning the NGO Orthodoxy in West Africa” (2010-2011) 36:3 Brook J INT’L L 993 at 995.

[2] Ibid at 996.

[3] Ibid at 999.

[4] Ibid at 1001.

[5] Ibid at 1001-1002.

[6] Alex Thurston, “Towards an ‘Islamic Republic of Mali?’” (2003) 37:2 Fletcher F World Aff 45 at 47.

[7] Ibid at 61.

[8] Benjamin F Soares, “Islam in Mali in the Neoliberal Era” (2005) 105:418 African Affairs 77 at 84 [Soares 2005].

[9] Tone Sommerfelt, Anne Hatloy, & Kristen Jesnes, “Religious reorientation in Southern Mali – A summary” (2015), Fafo, online: <http://www.fafo.no/~fafo/images/pub/2015/20424.pdf> at 7.

[10] Robert Launay & Benjamin F Soares, “The formation of an ‘Islamic sphere’ in French Colonial West Africa” (1999) 28:4 Economy and Society 497 at 506 [Soares and Launay].

[11] Kelley, supra note 1 at 1006.

[12] Thurston, supra note 6 at 49.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Kelley, supra note 1 at 1005 – 1006.

[15] Thurston, supra note 6 at 50.

[16] Soares and Launay, supra note 10 at 515.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Soares 2005, supra note 8 at 86.

[19] Kelley, supra note 1 at 1008.

[20] Benjamin F Soares, “The Attempt to Reform Family Law in Mali” (2009) 49:3/4 Islam in Contemporary West Africa 398 at 416 [Soares 2009]

[21] Ousmane Koné, “Le controverse autour du code des personnes et de la famille au mali: enjeux et strategies des actuers,” (September 2015), Université de Montréal (Doctoral Thesis), online : < https://papyrus.bib.umontreal.ca/xmlui/bitstream/handle/1866/13576/Kon%C3%A9_Ousmane_2015_these.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y> at 4.

[22] Boubacar Haidara, “Les formes d’articulation de l’islam et de la politique au Mali,” (2015), HAL (Doctoral Thesis), online : <https://halshs.archives-ouvertes.fr/tel-01319122/document > at 340.

[23] Ibid at 337.

[24] Koné, supra note 21 at 129.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid at 129-130.

[27] Ibid at 33.

[28] Ibid at 34.

[29] Ibid at 3-4.

[30] Portant Code des personnes et de la famille, Law No 11-080/AN-RM, 30 December 2011, online : < http://www.demisenya.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/mali-code-personnes-famille-2-decembre-2011.pdf> art 316 [Code 2011].

[31] Ibid, art 281.

[32] Code du mariage et de la tutelle, Law No 62-17/AN-RM, 3 February 1962, online : < http://jafbase.fr/docAfrique/Mali/CodMariage.pdf> art 11 [Code 1962]. 

[33] Ibid, art 284.

[34] Code 1962, supra note 32 art 11.

[35]Code 2011, supra note 30 art 20.

[36] Code 2011, supra note 30 art 283-287, art 299, art 300-305.

[37] Koné, supra note 21 at 134.

[38] Code 2011, supra note 30 art 751.

[39] Kelley, supra note 1 at 1009.

[40] Kelsey Jones-Casey, Anna Knox, & Zoey Chenitz, “Women, Inheritance, and Islam in Mali,” (2011), Focus on Land in Africa, online: < http://www.focusonland.com/fola/en/countries/brief-women-inheritance-and-islam-in-mali/>.

 

Torture Briefs and Up-river Explorations

2016 Squire MatthewBy Matthew Squire

I have now been in The Gambia interning at the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa for over seven weeks now.  So far, my time here in The Gambia has mostly been spent working, working out, and exploring the country.  

Crossing the River Gambia from Barra to Banjul

Crossing the River Gambia from Barra to Banjul

Work at IHRDA

On my first day, I was plunged into the deep end.  IHRDA at the moment has a significant number of projects on the go in French, so there has been no lack of work for the McGill intern!  Jetlagged and disoriented, I was given two dossiers of evidence to sort through and summarize my first day.  As it turns out, I would end up drafting the briefs of these two cases as well.  I just finished the second draft for each, and I have learned a lot in the process about the African human rights system.

My two cases were both from the same African country and dealt with torture and arbitrary extrajudicial killings by agents of the state.  The facts of both cases were strikingly similar and involved alleged horrific acts of torture by police officers, leading to death, permanent injury and disability.  In both cases, the state allegedly tried to cover up the acts.  From what I can tell from the evidence, medical reports and autopsies were not conducted, eyewitnesses changed their testimonies, investigators made no attempt to interview key eye-witnesses, and even after charges were laid, the accused were never brought before the court despite being summoned.  Years onwards from the incidents, the trials have yet to produce any result, and the victims have yet to receive any compensation.

Both of these cases are being brought before the ECOWAS court.  IHRDA is making more use of alternative mechanisms to the African Commission these days – it can take years for the Commission to reach a decision.  Since an amendment to its treaty in 2005, the ECOWAS court can now hear human rights cases brought by individuals.[1]  In theory, judgments of the ECOWAS court are also binding, unlike the Commission. 

The legal arguments of my briefs were built around the legal instruments that the state has ratified.  Using the jurisprudence of the African Commission, the Interamerican and European court systems, and the UN committees, as well as general comments from various UN bodies, I argued that the state was responsible for not exerting the required diligence to prevent, investigate, and remedy the alleged acts of torture and killings. 

In terms of remedies, in addition to demanding individual remedies for the victims, I asked for the strengthening of the country’s laws against torture, as well as for programs to build awareness among the law enforcement agencies and the population at large on human rights to try and prevent these kinds of acts in the future.

I still wonder at the end of the day what impact these cases will have.  From what I can tell, these are going to be the first cases on this issue brought against this state, which is really exciting.  However, the record for human rights cases in Africa, even for cases at the ECOWAS court, is not exactly promising, with very few decided cases compared to the number of violations. 

The ECOWAS court does, however, have an implementation procedure for its decisions, unlike the African commission.  Following a decision against a member state, a “competent national authority” of the state must be designated to receive a “writ of execution.”[2]

In one case, Manneh v. The Gambia, it was found that The Gambia had violated the African Charter for arresting and detaining without a warrant a prominent journalist, Chief Manneh.[3]  In this case, The Gambia responded with denial that it was holding or had ever held Manneh.  In this case, ECOWAS, despite having the power to, declined to impose sanctions on The Gambia.[4] 

In another case, Koraou v. Niger, Niger was found responsible for the actions of its judiciary for not taking steps to stamp out slavery.  Hadijiatou Mani Koraou, who had suffered horrendous sexual abuse for ten years as a slave in the household of an older man, brought an action in a local court to regain her freedom.   In the judgement of March 20, 2006, the local court asserted that she was free.  However, on appeal to the High Court, the judge stated, “The marriage of a free man with a slave woman is licit, in as far as he does not have the means of marrying a free woman, and if he fears falling into fornication.”[5] For this statement, Niger was found responsible, as it did not immediately denounce Hadijiatou’s status as a slave and did not institute proceedings against her captor.[6]  In this case, it has been noted that the government of Niger responded, unlike the government of The Gambia, because the decision gave support to political efforts to eradicate slavery at the domestic level.[7]  

Perhaps there is promise for change with these cases I have been preparing.  The country against which these cases are being brought has been making progress in improving governance and human rights, especially in improving violations committed by the security forces.  Maybe like with the Niger case, a decision from the ECOWAS court could strengthen trends of reform inside the country.  However, even with the ECOWAS court, it will take time.  A case filed by IHRDA last year only just received its hearing date, which is still several months away. 

At the end of the day, I guess you have to stay optimistic if you are working in human rights. It would be so easy to become pessimistic about the prospects for success for many of the projects that IHRDA is working on 

Life as an intern in The Gambia  

Full days of legal research and writing can be draining.  I really have been appreciating making use of my “off-time” to relax and explore the country a bit. 

Sunday afternoon football on the beach

Sunday afternoon football on the beach

Staying fit seems a big part of life here. I run several times a week down on the beach, where it’s normal to see large crowds of guys doing squats and pushups on the beach at any time of the day.  I also joined the local gym near where I am living.  It is in general really overcrowded.  Now that it is Ramadan, the busiest time is around 6-7:30 pm, with people trying to get in an intense workout before breaking their fast. 

There is not a whole lot in terms of things to do in and around Serrekunda, where I am staying, other than the beach and the nightlife, as well as a couple of tourist attractions.  The Gambia is a popular tourist destination for European holidaymakers, but there is a contingent of generally older female and male holidaymakers here for sexual tourism, which makes me very uncomfortable. 

Monkeys at Bijilo Forest Park in Kokoli

Monkeys at Bijilo Forest Park in Kokoli

I have made two trips outside of the city since I have been here.  On my first trip, I went to visit the approximately 2000 year old stone circles of Wassu and Ker Batch.  These monuments, more of which are found in neighboring Senegal, are believed to be ancient burial sites.  On this trip I also unwittingly stumbled into the president’s “Vision 2016” tour of the country, however, where I got a little too close for comfort to the 100 some-odd military vehicles that make up his convoy.  There has been political unrest in the capital Banjul in the past few months, and I was very nervous to suddenly come face to face with the president and his security detail. 

Wassu Stone Circles

Wassu Stone Circles

On my second trip, I visited the Chimp Rehabilitation Project in the River Gambia National Park.  An inspiring project, the original founders rescued chimps from captivity and trained them to survive in the wild.  The chimps are now confined to three large islands in the middle of the River Gambia, and for over a decade have had no human interference with their territory.  Project staff, however, do supplement the diet of the chimps daily.  The project receives very little outside funding, and relies mostly on the income from its very well-run and very comfortable tourist camp, of which I was the only visitor since April.  I was very pleased to see a sustainable ecological project that also provides jobs for the local community in this country. 

Beautiful Chimp in River Gambia National Park

Beautiful Chimp in River Gambia National Park

From what I have seen so far, it seems such a shame to me that so much focus and emphasis has been put on the country’s low-budget beach and nightlife tourism, at the expense of fascinating historical sites like the stone circles, the country’s beautiful ecology, and well-run sites such as the Chimp Rehabilitation Project. 

The end in sight

I have only five weeks remaining here in The Gambia.  I am finding the work at IHRDA fascinating and very rewarding, and I am looking forward to working on several new cases coming up in the final few weeks.   I am also looking forward to the two upcoming long weekends, both of which I plan to make use of to visit neighboring Senegal, a country culturally similar but politically different from The Gambia.   

[1] Frans Viljoen, International Human Rights Law in Africa, 2nd ed (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012) at 490. 

[2] Ibid at 498. 

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid at 498. 

[5] Hadijatou Mani Koraou v Niger (2008), ECW/CCJ/JUD/06/08, online : IHRDA <http://caselaw.ihrda.org/doc/ecw.ccj.jud.06.08/> at para 83. 

[6] Ibid at paras 83-84. 

[7] Viljoen, supra note 1 at 498.  

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: http://www.ihrda.org/.

[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 : http://www.trudeljohnston.com/fr/recours_collectifs/nos_recours/droit/anvil_mining/

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