World Human Rights Day : “Restoring a little hope”

10 December 2012

Far from being a luxury, justice is a basic necessity in many fragile nations. On World Human Rights Day, Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF) is paying tribute to those who fight on a daily basis to make justice more accessible to the most vulnerable populations. One such person is James Michel Songa*. At a time when the people of Eastern DRC are once again victims of violence, this former military judge bears witness to the reality on the ground.

“Today, it is the M23 who are on the front pages, but there are plenty of other groups who are terrorising the people of Eastern DRC. I remember a young militia member from another armed group who, during a tribunal hearing, declared: It is better to live one day as a hero than a whole life without killing.

Faced with such violence, how can victims continue to believe in justice? Nevertheless, they must have access to justice. I am convinced that each tribunal decision which condemns a warlord restores a little bit of hope, since to condemn is to recognise that a wrong has been committed.

For this to happen, there must be material and financial support for formal justice, as well as provision of training.

© ASF/Myriam Khaldi

In the province of Maniema for example, only the decisions of the Tribunal de Grande Instance in the province’s main town are typed up on a few old typewriters (see photo). The rest of the proceedings – statements, testimonies, question and answer sessions – are transcribed by hand. It is difficult to imagine justice being conducted like this in the 21st century.

Whereas Belgium has more than 15,000 lawyers, in Maniema there are barely 30, for an area which is four times the size of Belgium. People living in inland areas have never even seen a lawyer. For them, justice means reaching amicable solutions, or involving a traditional leader. But not everything can be settled through traditional law. A murder is not resolved by an exchange of goats between the parties.

Justice means the arrest and sentencing of the perpetrator who committed the crimes. It is also about obtaining redress. In spite of mass violations of human rights, life in the villages must get back to normal, and collective redress, like the construction of a hospital or a school, contributes to this process. The difficulty on the ground is that victims do not always perceive this type of redress in the same way. How do you deal on an equal basis with one situation where the victim has lost 10 members of his family and another where the militia extorted the equivalent of 10 euros from the victim.

It is not just in African countries that access to justice remains a distant dream. Although the problems may present themselves in a different way, the eyes of victims whose fundamental rights have been infringed – whether they are in Nepal, Uganda or Tunisia – are the same as those of the victims that I meet every day in Eastern DRC.

I do not kid myself: the world is what it is. We cannot change everything, but we can do something. ASF and other national and international organisations, along with Bar Associations and other justice professionals, are fighting against the impunity of those who commit human rights abuses, such as war crimes or crimes against humanity. This is how violence can be reduced. It’s a start.”

* A former Congolese military judge, James Michel Songa joined ASF in mid-2009. He is currently an assistant with the International Criminal Justice programme in Eastern DRC. A front-line staff member operating in sometimes dangerous security conditions, James collects evidence from victims of human rights violations and helps them to participate in legal proceedings.

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