[Webinar] Justice during a pandemic: Legal empowerment approaches during the COVID-19 crisis

On Tuesday April 14th, 2020, at 10am ET / 2pm GMT, we held a virtual round table discussion on how our legal empowerment work can address the justice challenges brought about or aggravated by the pandemic.

You can listen to a recording of the webinar here.

This webinar, moderated by Marlon Manuel (@marlonmanuel), Senior Advisor to the Global Legal Empowerment Network, featured a conversation with Namati’s CEO Vivek Maru (@vivekmaru) and key members of the Global Legal Empowerment Network.

They discussed questions such as:

  • How does this health crisis adversely impact those working with grassroots communities?
  • What injustices and rights violations are happening or may potentially happen as a result of government actions to address the crisis?
  • How can legal empowerment groups continue their work, specifically to address these injustices and rights violations, during the pandemic?

Here we share some key takeaways:

  • Vivek Maru (@vivekmaru), Namati CEO

    The pandemic exacerbates injustice and that means that the pandemic demands a great deal from those who are committed to the pursuit of justice - Vivek Maru

  • Whitney Adams (@WhitneyAdams), expert on pandemic preparedness and response, shared some key information about Covid-19, as well as what we can expect in the coming months, for example the implementation of strategies such as lockdown, shielding vulnerable populations, and case finding, contact tracing, safe and legal quarantine isolation.

  • Daniel Sesay (@danielsesay), Senior Program Officer at Namati Sierra Leone, shared their experience and response during the Ebola outbreak such as the role of paralegals, and the use of community meetings, toll-free legal advice line, and structures like the facility management committees to pass on information to very remote areas in the country.

  • Madhurima Dhanuka (@mdhanuka), Programme Lead at the Prison Reforms Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) - India, shared their challenges, actions and concerns regarding the rights of prisoners, in overcrowded spaces and inadequate health care facilities. As main concerns she highlighted: ensuring that authorities and in particular the legal services authorities are actually making prisoners aware of the situation and informing them of the restrictions, virus and health related information, hygiene precautions; provisioning and safe transit of prisoners after release; the temporary nature of the releases and how prisoners are expected to come back to the same overcrowded spaces after 40 days to 2 months.

  • Felipe Mesel (@felipemesel), Lawyer from the Right to the City area at Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y la Justicia (ACIJ) in Argentina, shared how the pandemic has unveiled in Argentina some hidden social problems such as the access to adequate housing for all, and how it is important to highlight housing as a right, and overcome the common view that everybody is affected in the same way, raising social pre-existing asymmetries.

    The pandemic is not just portraying but is also increasing the discriminatory effects of urban inequalities and segregation - Felipe Mesel

  • Jasminka Frishchikj (@jasminkafriscik), Executive Director of the Association for Emancipation, Solidarity and Equality of Women (ESE) in the Republic of North Macedonia, shared about the direct impacts of this pandemic in the lives and rights of women and girls, and the actions taken by ESE to respond to women and girls’ needs. Jasminka highlighted the economic, labour, health, social impacts, as well as the increase in family violence and the paralyzation of the formal system of protection that are currently happening in this context.

    From a gender equality perspective, we face a situation where everything that we have gained in the past is threatened - Jasminka Frishchikj

  • Fae Marie Bordey (@fmybordey), Litigation Coordinator at the Alternative Law Groups (ALG) in Philippines, touched on the concerns about how the pandemic could be used by some leaders to gain more powers and to tighten their grip. She also highlighted the importance of the role of CSOs, paralegals and activists in releasing information among the population, providing legal assistance, monitoring and documenting the violations and human rights during this period to shape legislation and hold authorities accountable.

Here we share some key elements for legal empowerment groups in this context:

  • The role in translating, not just in language but culturally and locally, these basic messages on covid-19 prevention, and preventing the spread of misinformation.
  • As these measures are implemented, feeding back the information from the community to the government regarding what is actually happening.
  • Finding out which grassroots groups are doing healthwork. Eventually, that work on case detection, contact tracing, and safe and legal isolation of cases and quarantine of contacts will hopefully be happening. If you don’t know who is doing that, find out, because we will need every grassroots group to help with that.
  • Learn a little bit more about what is legal during a quarantine, starting with WHO’s guidance and UN guidance on what legal safe quarantine looks like to protect human rights.
  • We are going to need grassroots groups to help with the massive care and recovery effort that this is going to take.
  • Keeping yourself safe and making sure we you are very well protected when you go back to your community.

By listening to this webinar recording, legal empowerment groups can learn from the sharing of past and current initiatives in addressing common challenges that we face in the midst of this global emergency.

Together, we will explore ways of supporting each other in this extraordinarily challenging period.

Background Information:

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the world to an unprecedented crisis.

The situation urgently requires medical and humanitarian assistance as an immediate response. Some extraordinary interventions become necessary to slow down the spread of the virus. But our collective experience shows that, when governments take emergency action, there is always a serious risk that injustices will be committed against vulnerable and marginalized groups and communities, and discrimination and rights violations can become more entrenched as a result.

Legal empowerment is essential during this challenging time. Vulnerabilities and inequalities are magnified in the midst of the pandemic. The effects of both the fast spreading disease and governments’ containment measures disproportionately impact marginalized groups, such as workers, homeless persons and those living in informal settlements, minorities, and migrants, especially women within these vulnerable populations. The time is ripe for the legal empowerment community to convene and consider how to respond.

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During the Q&A part of the webinar, @sarahossain, from the Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST), asked the following questions that we copy here together with their answers for those interested.

  • Have Indian groups been assisting prisoners with the actual release process (getting them home, communicating with their families, etc.) and how have you addressed the issue about concerns being raised whether prisoners should be tested prior to the release?

@mdhanuka: Indian groups have been assisting in the releases in terms of getting prisoners back home safely. As for national advocacy level actions, they are writing to prison departments, offices and legal services authorities, and collaborating with other organizations. There are reports from many parts of the country where assistance has been given. The Legal Services Authority has been working with NGOs to enable assistance to prisoners, and some of their families are being provided assistance. As regards to the testing of prisoners prior to release, CHRI’s has expressed on notes that can be found on their website that there shouldn’t be a situation where prisoners become the carriers. We have emphasized pre-release testing. Whether it’s been done across the nation, we don’t know yet. We are trying to document as much as possible and put it out somewhere.

  • How do we ensure better coordination in-country between service providers? How do we move beyond immediate relief and address broader aspects, like advocacy for government reforms?

@felipemesel: We worked with other organizations in Latin America to make our public policy proposals document. There are several commonalities between informal settlements in Latin America. We are trying to ensure that informal settlements are highlighted -they need services, food, etc. - but also the need to make governments react somehow to this crisis, keeping in mind economic effects. It’s a work along a double scale.

@WhitneyAdams: For non-legal related coordination -it’s a tricky question. The UN should provide the framework and the UN offices should be providing the coordinating mechanisms for response. The most robust activities will be led by leading NGOs doing health previously in your country. Start with IFRC because they have a huge lead. Check there first to see what’s happening.

  • How do we encourage governments to open up and not close spaces?

@fmybordey: it works to collaborate with government and civil society organizations, including private institutions. How do we encourage governments to be open to this? We are still trying to figure that out. Gather information/data we gather from communities and bring it up into legislation that would be more inclusive and that would have direct plans in addressing the different aspects of the pandemic.

During the Q&A part of the webinar, the following question was asked. We copy it here together with the answer for those interested.

  • Are there guidelines on the integration or mainstreaming of legal empowerment in humanitarian work, crisis like this one?

@WhitneyAdams: I would refer people first to WHO’s guidance on quarantine and stigma. I’m not familiar with general guidance on legal empowerment on this scale. There’s a lot around privacy, data protection and surveillance. That’s something really new in this particular crisis. The EU has released the first guidelines on privacy, protection, surveillance and tracking.

Resource: Statement on the processing of personal data in the context of the COVID-19 outbreak - European Data Protection Board

During the webinar, Lydia Winyi Kembabazi (@Kembabazi) and paralegal Namsa Thoronka (@Nam) from AdvocAid Sierra Leone shared their experience during the Ebola crisis and, among other things, they shared how:

  • During the lockdown, because they weren’t given access to police stations, they spoke to various police stations (station sargeants), and managed to distribute forms. After the lockdown, they were able to gather the forms and use them to advocate.

  • They continued monitoring various police stations and noticed people were being arrested because they were seeking basic amenities like water, and then flogged and beaten by police. They intervened and spoke to the police officers.

  • They gave phones to the commanding officer in charge at the police stations and made follow-up calls.

Compared to the Ebola crisis (which was the first time where Sierra Leoneans were asked to stay at home), the violations in such crisis were on a larger scale. For now, in the current Covid-19 crisis, they believe we are better able to cope with it. The biggest challenge was the lack of access to basic amenities.

Since there was a great number of questions, we didn’t have time to answer all of them during the webinar. The webinar panelists (@WhitneyAdams, @danielsesay, @mdhanuka, @felipemesel, @jasminkafriscik, @fmybordey) will help to answer those questions -to be found below- through the comments in this post.

  • Are there are practical resources that could help community legal practitioners and informal justice actors in the time of COVID that international organizations can help produce and organize?

  • Is anyone documenting good practices of law enforcement authorities? We are hearing about the abuses, but one way forward is to document positive initiatives, as was done with HIV. e.g, http://www.leahn.org/

  • How can state governments be held accountable when they are using the Covid crisis to further impunity and self interests?

  • Are there any resources to provide advice to orgs wanting to set up hotline and bulk sms for legal empowerment responses?

  • Here in Nigeria we have a lot of human rights abuse going on here because the police and soldiers feel they have the right to beat up people who violate the lockdown order whether they are justified or not. What can I do legally this time to ameliorate that?

  • Local NGOs in VIetnam are funded by the EU to raise awareness for communities, but now under lock down, we must stop. Would you share experience to run raising awareness on laws in this situation.

  • What are the necessary changes that our population’s need to make in the medium term?

  • How are we working in this difficult time? Is our paralegal able to work, or what tools are we using to get the information?

  • Are there any guidelines on integrating empowerment into humanitarian response prog? Is there a role for the Ministry of Law and Justice? In Nepal, the ministry is not active.

  • In Colombia we have the same problems in prisons, overcrowding and denial of human rights, however the Government doesn’t want to make some releases. How was this process in India, was it a direct order?

  • If you could please upload or share the Supreme Court case that has taken an active role in interrogating the state of congestion of the detention facilities in the light of COVID. This may trigger some discussion in my country on how the authorities can do the same.

  • In a situation where an individual is the owner of the house, should he also suspend the payment of rent in this situation?

  • In your opinion, what should the government do regarding the homeless people in these times when they have no place to go and protect themselves from the virus?

  • How do we ensure safety of girls and women during the lockdown with regards to abuse?

  • We all hear a lot about domestic violence in the community. However, due to lockdown courts are not open, hotlines, shelter homes are not functioning and police are busy enforcing lockdown. The challenges are two fold:

  • How do we convert the unreported violence cases into reporting?

  • How do we solve the dilemma of reporting cases to police or other authorities where there are no resources available for the victims and they have no option but to live with the abuser?

  • Hi everyone, I would like to know the views of the expert panel members on the right to food during the covid-19 crisis, do you work on these issues? I am from Switzerland, I am not so familiar with Namati’s work so my question was whether they work on right to food issues and whether they observed acute right to food violation issues due to the crisis.

  • How we can get support for our community paralegals and public health volunteers to fight COVID-19? I mean financial support to purchase the scarce face masks, water tanks for cleaning hands at shopping centers, soaps, sanitizers, etc.

  • Is Namati providing legal assistance to affected families?

  • In India, due to curfew, right to livelihood is imperiled by right to health/life. At this coronavirus infection time, denial of right to work equally affects the right to health. How to resolve this issue?

  • During disaster, is it possible to enforce UN Conventions at the local level? If there are conflicts of country/local law with the UN Declaration of Human Rights and other rights enshrined in various conventions/covenants (international law)?

  • Curfew is like curtailing the civil rights of citizens (right to movement, association etc). It is like emergency like situation. What extent, civil rights of citizens are curtailed in time of COVID-19?

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Local NGOs in Vietnam are funded by the EU to raise awareness for communities, but now under lock down, we must stop. Would you share experience to run raising awareness on laws in this situation?

Unfortunately, in our case these activities were suspended as well. If there is no possibility to meet in person and following social distancing recommendations, obviously we should all find ways or alternative communication channels of how to conduct these activities without putting in danger each other.

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How are we working in this difficult time? Is our paralegal able to work, or what tools are we using to get the information?

Association ESE is providing support to a group of paralegals that works in Roma communities all over the country. The paralegals are still working in the communities since they live there. However, their work nowadays is focused on delivering food and sanitary packages. They are also focused on helping people to apply and to receive the social assistance granted by the state as a response to the situation. We are also informing them for every change that may affect lives and livelihoods of the Roma population.

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How do we ensure safety of girls and women during the lockdown with regards to abuse?

Even in a case of a lockdown we have continued to provide services i.e. legal aid and support and psychological support to women that suffered domestic violence. Our telephone line is open, so they can freely call and get all needed information. When needed, certain legal documents needed are prepared by the attorney. We are also providing funds if needed. In one case where woman that suffered domestic violence didn’t want to be sheltered, we have decided to pay her a rent and minimum monthly amount needed for living till she is able to get a job and be able to earn income. In order to raise the awareness and women to be able to recognize the violence we are preparing short videos that are posted on social media. In this regard, the attorney through short statements is providing legal advices for resolution of most common legal problems and legal mechanisms for protection of women that suffered domestic violence. Psychological support is also available through telephone.

We all hear a lot about domestic violence in the community. However, due to lockdown courts are not open, hotlines, shelter homes are not functioning and police are busy enforcing lockdown. The challenges are two fold:

How do we convert the unreported violence cases into reporting?

How do we solve the dilemma of reporting cases to police or other authorities where there are no resources available for the victims and they have no option but to live with the abuser?

This is dilemma that we are facing as well. Namely, on one hand we call upon women to recognize and to report domestic violence incidents. On the other hand, we are aware that the system is not functioning, so practically we may put in danger women, since they will report the violence and will not be able to resolve the problem. Therefore, I think that we should coordinate the CSO’s service providers in providing different type of services (of course if they have funds) in order to substitute the lack of services and at the same time to work with the state institutions on adapting their way of proceeding in this situation. In this regard, we have already submitted urgent recommendations to the Government and relevant ministries, for increasing the coordination among the relevant institutions and implementation of protective measures, including the increased capacities for sheltering of women during the lockdown. More concretely a Protocol for proceeding on these cases in emergency situation may be prepared and adopted as well. We strongly recommend that women and women’s CSO’s are included and considered when drafting this protocol.

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