The Chairperson of the Bar Committee on Human Rights for England and Wales, Kirsty Brimelow (QC), was in Nigeria recently on the invitation of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) to train lawyers on legal rights and protection of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in North East Nigeria. In this interview, she speaks on legal frameworks needed for the protection of rights of IDPs, the vulnerable, among others. Excerpts:
What informed the need to train lawyers on protection of the rights of IDPs?
Recently, I read a 2017 UNICEF report in which it was estimated that by end of 2017, 90,000 children would have starved to death in the North East of Nigeria. Before this, I already had a lot of experience in training and working on child rights in Nigeria with the UNICEF, and I thought that perhaps there must be some training we could do. Also, around that time I met with the President of the NBA. So, discussions were happening in parallel about the crises in the North East and the role of lawyers in curtailing them.
One gap that was observed with Nigerian lawyers was in using human rights law at regional levels like the ECOWAS court, and also at the international level. This was what informed the need for the training.
Aside this UNICEF report, were there other pronounced problems at the IDPs camps that necessitated this training?
The big issue with the IDPs is conditions in the camps; access to free medical care and education, and these are on top of the right to life. In addition, those who were suspected to be Boko Haram terrorists may be taken out without due process by the military and they can be IDPs without access to justice and access to lawyers. This is why we are looking at how lawyers can come in to enforce and implement the law in this regard.
Are there shocking incidents from research on the IDPs which formed the basis for this intervention?
The shock is really that of malnutrition. The issue of lack of resources; though money is going into the North East for food from the government, but it is not actually reaching those in need. This is what the state really needs to look at. It needs to look at how the resources are being distributed. There is also the issue of people who shouldn’t be in detention but were detained.
What was the pre-training level of awareness among the lawyers?
We did self-assessment for them and most people conceded that they did not have strong knowledge of international laws in relation to protection of the rights of IDPs. And their knowledge of the regional laws also seems not to be very strong. None of our participants had ever used any international law in relation to IDPs rights.
What makes the knowledge of international law important since the cases are filed at the local courts?
That’s the key; whether the domestic laws are working. So, where the domestic laws are not, that’s when there is need for international legal framework. You can also use the international laws within the domestic laws and the courts should not be making rulings that are contrary to international laws even where these laws have not been domesticated. But, some international laws have already been domesticated, for example for the Convention of Rights of the Child; you have the Federal Child Rights Act, 2015.
So, the invitation of the NBA to train lawyers on international laws and also evidence gathering was because of the crisis in the North East and the domestic laws not functioning effectively for the protection of the rights of the IDPs.
What are the necessary frameworks that should be put in place for the protection of the rights of IDPs?
There is the Kampala Convention; that is the major treaty dealing with the issue of IDPs, and its domesticating bill is pending at the National Assembly. However, nothing is happening. There is need to push for its domestication. Nigeria decided that it agreed with the terms of the treaty; however, for it to have reality, it has to come in as a national act.
Compared to international best practices, how do legislations like the Child Rights Act fare?
The Child Rights Act has not been domesticated in many states in Nigeria, and there should be a push for its domestication. As to best practices, there is a gap in evidence collection. The best methods of obtaining evidence from traumatised witnesses has formed part of the best practices training we have been conducting with the NBA.
The lawyers are of high standard in Nigeria, that’s why the trainings have been successful. However, because they have a generalised practice, they do benefit from specialist trainings.
Nigerian lawyers also have added challenges in evidence collection because of lack of willingness of families to pursue anything because they are concerned about stigmatisation, especially in sexual related offences. So, the best practice in evidence gathering from traumatised witnesses is where Nigerian lawyers have been welcoming the assistance because it’s a different method of speaking with someone that has been traumatised to get reliable information from them than from an adult who has not gone through any particular trauma.
Going forward, what are your recommendations for Nigeria’s legal framework on IDPs and the vulnerable?
Nigeria needs strong institutions; corruption needs to be tackled in the institutions so they can function. Many institutions in the North East don’t have proper electronic system of filing, so there needs to be resources to strengthen them. There needs to be resources in the police force; with training the police on how to approach cases in an investigative way. It is a confession-based approach with the police here; they consider that in an allegation of crime, confession is the answer. Often, those confessions are obtained in situations where the suspect ends up saying he was coerced to make them, which doesn’t help the prosecutor during trial.
Suggestion for young lawyers is to do pro-bono work in human rights to familiarise themselves with Nigeria’s obligations under international treaties and start to use this, as well as with the domestic laws. Human rights activists can also consider the ECOWAS court and consider cases under the African Charter, which is a very strong charter that is not utilised enough by lawyers.
The challenge is really educating lawyers; mostly young lawyers, to try and use other mechanisms; they are used to relying on the constitution and the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) which is just coming in. The mindset of most Nigerian lawyers seems to be much more national. So if they could change this mindset, which is a thing for young lawyers to start to do, they might find that where there are locks and failures within the domestic legislations, they might find another way of unlocking it. I think this is doable, but everybody has to take responsibility because everybody has a role to play.