Alpha Fall and Ashoka Fellow Julia Harrington are working to strengthen and enforce international law in the Gambia and across Africa by training human rights and development organizations to monitor abuses and implement regional human rights agreements.
The New Idea
Alpha and Julia's organization, the African Institute for Human Rights and Development, teaches organizations from Gambia and other African countries to monitor and enforce human rights protocols established by international bodies such as the Organization of African Unity. In the past, only a few specialized lawyers had such skills; now Alpha and Julia are sharing their expertise so that human rights activists can take advantage of these legal agreements. Alpha and Julia's objective is to make legal procedures more transparent, apply them to specific cases, and minimize the obstacles which might otherwise be insurmountable for non-lawyers. They plan to train other individuals and organizations so that they will no longer require the Institute's expertise to prepare lawsuits on both a national and pan-African level.
International human rights law can protect people from abuses by their own governments,but it is difficult to enforce and remains a highly specialized legal discipline, even among lawyers. Additionally, while many nations sign international human rights agreements, many fail to live up to their commitments to protect their citizens' basic rights.
The most prominent example of human rights treaty law in Africa is the African Charter on Human and People's Rights, which was adopted by more than fifty member states of the Organization of African Unity in 1981 and officially implemented in 1986. The charter created the African Commission, a monitoring and enforcement body with broad powers. In extreme instances, citizens may use the treaty law to sue their own governments for redress. However, few individuals and organizations currently have the expertise and resources to bring cases before the commission. Aside from a few African organizations (mostly Nigerian), only prominent Western human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, Interrights, and Human Rights Watch have the ability to present cases to the commission.
The African Institute for Human Rights and Development will combine the success of African human rights organizations in publicizing human rights with the practice of "impact litigation," which Latin American groups have used to provide remedies for individual victims while setting important precedents in international law and changing government policy.
Alpha and Julia established the Institute because they believe that the African Charter on Human and People's Rights is a potentially powerful legal tool, but is largely unknown and unused. They want similar regional human rights mechanisms to be used more frequently and effectively. While working in the legal section of the Secretariat of the African Commission, both Alpha and Julia learned how to navigate through the commission's complicated procedures and also saw how the commission's actions could change and occasionally save the lives of ordinary Africans. For example, a number of national, Inter-African, and international human rights organizations worked with the African Commission on behalf of West African nationals expelled from Angola in 1996. Senegalese, Malian, Mauritanian, Gambian, and other nationals were subjected to extreme acts of brutality and illegally expelled from the country. The Commission's decision favored the plaintiffs, and it set a precedent for legal requirements for deportation and the state's responsibility.
Informally, Alpha and Julia started to pass along their knowledge of the Commission's procedures to activists, who were eager for expertise. The great number of inquiries led them to create the Institute for Human Rights and Development in May 1997.
Among the Institute's programs is an effort to train individuals from organizations in the procedures of the African regional system. A second program is litigation, which will take specific cases to the African Commission. The Institute shares its institutional resources and expertise, while participants bring their extensive experience with human rigts problems and ideas for solutions. Supporting these two programs are research and publication, which will make essential information available for training, and provide the theoretical background for litigation.
Alpha and Julia's objective is to increase the number of Africans who will be able to take action at the national level but also in front of the African Commission. To increase their effectiveness, those experts will hold training sessions in order to build the capacities of other grassroots organizations. One of Alpha and Julia's future strategies is to build relations with other parts of the citizen sector. They want to show more small African development organizations how to incorporate economic, social and cultural rights from international treaties into their outlook and programs.
So far, representatives of non-governmental organizations from more than a dozen African countries have participated in the institute's training, which includes step-by-step instruction in researching, preparing, and submitting cases to the African Commission. The institute will follow up with these participants over the next five years and will make its resources available to them as necessary.
Alpha and Julia also try to build constructive rather than confrontational relationships with the African states and African Commission, and train other organizations to do the same, since their effectiveness depends on a good working relationship with these governmental institutions.
Though born and raised on different continents, Alpha and Julia share an interest in human rights law and a common belief in dignity, respect, and equality for all human beings.
Julia grew up in the United States. In secondary school, she was on the founding board of a youth organization working on community construction projects in Washington, D.C. Julia also volunteered in prisons and studied the Northern Ireland conflict as a college student. During this time, she realized that the failure to respect human rights accentuated the alienation that individuals felt from their government, and worsened the conflict.
From an early age, Alpha knew he wanted to be a human rights advocate. He started while he was a student in Senegal, where he was one of the founding members of Rencontre Africaine des Droits de l'Homme, a leading human rights organization. He went on to work at a renowned law firm in Dakar. While studying law in the late 1980s, he created an informal early warning system to protect women against domestic violence.
After Alpha graduated from University Cheikh Anta Diop in Senegal and Julia graduated from Harvard Law School in the mid-1990s, they both turned down job offers from law firms, instead choosing to work at the African Commission on Human and People's Rights. Julia interned in the commission's legal section, where she met Alpha. They left the commission to start the African Institute for Human Rights and Development in 1997.