12 August 2012
Bujumbura/Brussels. Ensuring equal rights and guaranteeing access to justice for all citizens is a challenge, particularly in a country such as Burundi. Until recently, twenty organisations have been separately, without coordination, attempting to address problems in accessing justice in a country in which there are only 200 lawyers for a population of 8.5 million, where prisons are overpopulated by 300%, and where people seeking justice often lack the necessary resources. In an effort to increase collaboration, Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF) has been involved in a forum of legal aid actors attempting to find solutions to these problems, and to better respond to the population’s legal needs.
Launched in 2011, this Legal Aid Forum brings together the Minister of Justice, legal aid organisations, two bar associations, and interested universities.
The Legal Aid Baseline Study, commissioned by ASF, analysed the state of the legal aid sector, and provided recommendations pinpointing its needs. Field trips to Belgium and Cameroon, and input from experts from Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, served as an opportunity to learn about good practices used in other countries. In sharing their respective experiences, the participants focused on how to mobilise in a manner that uses available resources more efficiently, how to identify which actions should take priority, and how to follow up on their impact.
After a year of research, reflection and sharing, the Forum, in the meantime institutionalised by the government, proposed a Legal Aid National Strategy for Burundi. This document – and the entire process that enabled its drafting – is unprecedented in the Great Lakes Region. It recommends, among other things, to:
- Ensure that information, legal counsel, and advice services are made available to all people, in all districts and jurisdictions;
- Concentrate lawyers’ legal aid on detainees and minors in conflict with the law;
- Improve the quality of information, advice, and aid for the population through the implementation of an obligatory certification system;
- Work on developing the legal profession in the provinces to facilitate the placement of lawyers outside Bujumbura;
- Find dependable and sustainable financial sources within the Burundian private sector.
The government has pledged to maintain the Forum and must now officially accept and support this strategy, notably by adopting a law which will enable the type of legal aid advocated by the Forum. Financing this legal aid remains uncertain, and will be the biggest challenge in ensuring effective access to justice for all.
Contributing to these efforts, ASF is continuing its advocacy, most recently by submitting a report on The State of Progress in Realising the Right to Justice in Burundi that will be used for the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Burundi at the UN Human Rights Council in January 2013.