Legal information and human rights

2015 Vallery Bayly

By Vallery Bayly

Accessing legal information is critical to enforcing rights. This is as true in Canada as it is everywhere else in the world. People need to know what their rights are before they can even think about trying to enforce them. Human rights defenders, and particularly lawyers, also need to be able to access legal information in order to protect and enforce human rights.

Availability

Over the past twelve weeks of my internship with Avocats sans frontières Canada, I’ve worked on a few projects related to the legal framework (the justice system and domestic laws) of other countries, particularly Mali. Often during my internship I have found myself frustrated with the lack of availability of basic legal information. For a Canadian law student, the idea of not being able to access legal information online is unthinkable. But when I look for information about Malian law, it can be difficult – often impossible – to find even basic legal texts. Even when information is available online, it’s often out of date or incomplete.

In Canada, it’s fairly easy for lawyers, law students, human rights defenders, and citizens to access vital legal information. The Supreme Court puts all of its jurisprudence online, and laws are accessible through federal, provincial, and municipal government websites. There’s also CanLII, which offers free access to cases and legislation.

There is nothing like CanLII in Mali. A very small number of cases are available online. A few of the most important laws – like the Civil Code and the Penal Code – are available, though generally finding them requires some digging. However, some of my research ended when I was unable to find any relevant legal information online. If this is frustrating for me, sitting in an office in Quebec, I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for the people who really need this information. And this isn’t only the case in Mali – in many places, legal information is difficult or impossible to find online.

Accessibility

It goes without saying that it is not enough that legal information simply be available. While lawyers can make use of cases and laws in their original form, they must also be available in a form that is accessible and comprehensible to the people who need the information most. Literacy rates can affect the accessibility of legal information. Language barriers can also exist. For example, almost 50% of the population of Mali speaks Bambara as their first language, and there are a variety of other languages spoken. The official language – the language of the legal system – is French. These factors can make even the legal information that is available inaccessible to the majority of the population.

This is why many projects aimed at reinforcing human rights and increasing access to justice focus on providing legal information in an accessible format – although access to justice is a multi-faceted problem. Even if information is available, making use of the information can be difficult if courts are difficult or expensive to access.

There are no easy solutions to these problems, and many of them exist in Canada as well, albeit to a lesser extent. But what I’ve learned over the course of my internship is that we’re incredibly lucky to have free, easy access to so much legal information.

Recent developments in international criminal law

2015 Bayly ValleryBy Vallery Bayly

The fight against impunity is central to many aspects of ASFC’s work. In Guatemala, in Haiti, in Colombia, in Mali, ASFC has emphasized the importance of combating impunity for serious human rights abuses. Over the past eight weeks, I’ve looked at the role of international criminal law as a tool to combat impunity, and some of the positive developments that have occurred over the last 25 years. Here are a few examples:

The establishment of the International Criminal Court

On July 1, 2002, the Rome Statute came into force, creating the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC is a permanent institution that has jurisdiction over the most serious international crimes: most notably, genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity (Rome Statute, article 5). The ICC is particularly important in terms of what it represents: a willingness in the international community to devote attention and resources to the prosecution of serious international crimes. Its first judgment was rendered in 2012.

Domestic trials for serious violations of human rights

The ICC’s jurisdiction is “complementary” – meaning that domestic courts bear the primary responsibility for prosecuting serious international crimes, but the ICC can step in when domestic courts are either unable or unwilling to do so (see Article 17 of the Rome Statute). Many international crimes and cases of serious human rights abuses have been prosecuted at the national level on the basis of various types of jurisdiction, including universal jurisdiction (the notion that any state can prosecute the most serious international crimes, regardless of where they were committed). For an overview of cases that have been prosecuted under the principle of universal jurisdiction, see TRIAL’s website.

Some notable domestic cases include Alberto Fujimori, the former president of Peru who was convicted of human rights abuses committed during his presidency and sentenced to 25 years’ imprisonment by Peruvian courts. Closer to home, last year the Quebec Court of Appeal confirmed Désiré Munyaneza’s conviction and sentence for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity committed during the Rwandan genocide.

Development of the rules and principles of international criminal law

Efforts to prosecute international crimes at the international and domestic level have naturally led to the development of a jurisprudence of international crimes. International criminal law has also been codified in various ways. The Rome Statute is the most obvious example, but principles of international criminal law are also codified in instruments such as the Genocide Convention and the Convention against Torture. In Canada, the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act of 2000 implements the Rome Statute in Canadian law and codifies a number of rules and principles of international criminal law in the Canadian context. Many other countries have similar laws. Codification and the development of jurisprudence have made international criminal law more precise, clear, and certain – although plenty of work still remains to be done.

Visibility

Perhaps most importantly, the visibility of international criminal law as a tool to combat impunity has increased. ASFC is one of many human rights organizations engaged in an ongoing discourse about impunity and the importance of seeking justice for the victims of serious human rights abuses.

There are still many challenges to overcome. Existing international criminal law institutions have been (justifiably) subject to criticism. Impunity remains a serious problem. But the tools to combat it exist, and human rights defenders have increasingly made use of them.

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