UNODC Helps Train Defence Lawyers to Become Human Rights Defenders 

Abuja, 10 December 2020 - As we celebrate International Human Rights Day, we are also reminded of the work that human rights defenders do to ensure the rights of the most vulnerable are protected, and this includes the rights of those who find themselves within the criminal justice system.

Defence lawyers play a vital and irreplaceable role in the promotion and protection of human rights. The right to fair trial is fundamental to any democratic society, without the full enjoyment of this right the rule of law itself is meaningless, and without dedicated public defenders fully committed to the defence of their clients it is unattainable.

In January of this year, UNODC supported the deployment of 31 Legal Aid Council of Nigeria (LACON) defence lawyers to the Joint Investigation Centre (JIC) detention facility in Maiduguri to conduct pre-trial interviews of terrorism suspects and to ensure their constitutional right to a fair trial. This resulted in LACON being granted access to 314 detainees.

As Mr. Abdulfattah Bakre, LACON’s Deputy Director Criminal Litigation, subsequently observed: ”The pre-trial interview exercise has in no small measure given meaning to the constitutional rights of the defendants by giving adequate time to prepare for their defense, thereby enhancing the right to a fair trial, and ensuring the credibility of the upcoming hearings.”

Ensuring that terrorists are brought to justice can present many challenges. Investigators are often placed under tremendous pressure to get results, and in such circumstances it is all too easy to make mistakes.

A strong commitment to the application of the rule of law and adherence to the fundamental principles of human rights, as envisaged in both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, provides powerful protection from such mistakes leading to miscarriages of justice. When the wrong person is convicted, two wrongs are committed, an innocent person’s life is ruined, and a guilty one is left to offend again.

 UNODC has provided further capacity-building support to LACON throughout 2020, and last month organized two online training series on Human Rights in the Criminal Justice Response to Terrorism for defence lawyers assigned to handle terrorism cases.

The training covered a variety of human rights-related topics with participants drawn from different parts of the country. A key highlight was a presentation on the Anti-Torture Act 2017 which placed particular emphasis on the need for judges, prosecutors, and defense counsel to drive the implementation of the Anti-Torture Act 2017 by ensuring that every act of torture that comes to their notice does not go unaddressed.

Students shared an example of LACON successfully claiming damages for an act of torture perpetrated on a client while in police custody. This is an excellent first step, but proper redress does not only mean compensation for the victim but also that the perpetrators of the offence are held to account under the law. In addition, the Legal Aid Officers were reminded of the practical role they have to play in preventing torture by remaining alert to any evidence of prisoner abuse as they perform their duties.

Fraser Hirst, the UNODC expert delivering the training, took care to highlight the importance of ensuring that a gender perspective forms part of an effective counterterrorism response. Account must be taken of the multifaceted and distinct ways that women and men are involved in and are impacted by terrorist acts and counter terrorism responses.

Hirst noted that “many women caught up in the justice system may effectively be victims who are being re-victimised and re-traumatised by the system and the process, even if, on the face of it, they may appear to have committed an offence under the TPA as amended.”

The workshop evaluations indicated that 100% of the participants rated the overall utility of the workshops as being very good or excellent and said they would attend again. One of the participants, Ms. Anita Chukwuka, commented that she was “really impacted by the workshop sessions and motivated to keep working firmly on human right issues.”

Video link and virtual hearings hearings are a very useful tool, but they do have their challenges and limitations. When assessing the appropriateness of holding a virtual hearing in a particular case, consideration must be given as to how such a hearing could impact both the civil and human rights of all concerned parties, especially fair trial standards such as the right to an effective defence, and also to the issue of public access to trials so that justice is not just done but, equally important, is also seen to be done. These practical challenges must be identified and addressed in advance of any hearing. If the practical challenges cannot be solved in a way which ensures a fair hearing or trial process, then the potential use of a virtual hearing format should be excluded.

The webinar was extremely useful and productive. UNODC looks forward to continuing to work with the Nigerian justice sector and all other interested stakeholders to develop practical and innovative IT solutions which will enhance the delivery of justice both during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

These trainings were delivered with the financial support of the European Union.