An Institution of Human Rights on Duty
By mid-1980s, Namibia was firmly under the iron first of South African apartheid rule, and the long and bitter armed struggle for the country's liberation was raging. Especially in northern Namibia, torture and assault, intimidation, arbitrary arrests and detentions without trial, and the destruction of property, livelihoods and lives, were daily realities. Human rights abuses were routine and went unpunished. The rule of law was non-existent.
This insufferable situation provide the impetus for the establishment of a public interest, human rights law firm – the Legal Assistance Centre.
- LAC Opens. After months of discussions with workers, students and church leaders, and numerous fundraising efforts, founding Director and now Chairperson of the LAC, Dave Smuts SC, opened the doors of the new Legal Assistance Centre in Ongwediva on 9 July 1988.
- Represents Hundreds of Clients. The LAC's lawyers and paralegals were suddenly flooded with cases involving human rights abuses. Hundreds of summonses were issued against the South African government in the first few days of the centre for monetary compensation amounting to several thousand Namibian dollars.
- Defends Detainees & Tortured People. The LAC's lawyers, acting for families of detainees and tortured people, began to make inquiries at police stations and detention centres around the country. Numerous applications were brought in the courts for the release of detainees.
- Investigates Killings. As independence drew near and the liberation fighters returned on 1 April 1989, the South African security forces' brutality and utter disregard for people's lives and property continued unabated. Several hundred liberation fighters were killed. The LAC's lawyers conducted a thorough investigation and reported the widespread extra-judicial killings of returning PLAN fighters by the security forces to the United Nations (UN). The UN intervened and nine days later the killings stopped.
- Government Tries to Shut Down LAC. The LAC's commitment to upholding human rights did not endear it to the South African government and its security forces. The apartheid government then challenged the very existence of the LAC by claiming that its structure and composition – employing lawyers and paralegals to provide legal services to the indigent for free – was illegal. The LAC approached the Supreme Court of South West Africa to safeguard its existence and its work for the people's human rights. Justice Arthur Chaskalson, at the time a formidable human rights lawyer, represented the Legal Assistance Centre and after a forceful argument before a full bench, the South African government lost the case – a scenario which would become increasingly familiar in the two years leading up to Namibia's independence.
- Independence. Namibia achieves Independence and the Namibian Constitution becomes the Supreme law of the land, guiding all laws made in the country and ensuring the rights and freedoms of ALL citizens.
- First Free Elections. The LAC provided voter education services for an overwhelming majority of Namibians had never voted before. The LAC also monitored the election campaign and the election process itself.
- Repeals Restrictive Laws. The LAC made representations to the UN and the South African government which resulted in the repeal of restrictive laws and the release of political prisoners.
- Wins Award. The founder & director of the LAC, Dave Smuts, received an award from the international human rights organization, Human Rights Watch, in recognition of his work at the Legal Assistance Centre.
- Simplifies the Law. One of the other most important pieces of legislation, the Labour Act of 1992, was published by the LAC in English and, despite many reprints, remains sold out. The LAC also trained union officials to deal with labour disputes in the context of the new law. In the years that followed, the LAC has provided simplified versions of several important new laws and provided training on them, such as the Married Persons Equality Act, the Land Reform Acts, the Maintenance Act, the Combating of Domestic Violence Act, the Child Justice Bill, the Combating of Rape Act, and the Child Status Act.
- Becomes a Training Institute. The LAC awarded its first post-secondary scholarships. Since then, more than 20 Namibians, including the LAC's current director, and more than 10 past and present staff members, qualified as lawyers.
- Establishes Gender Research and Advocacy Project (GR&AP). Through a diverse approach, GR&AP aims to conduct research into the effectiveness of current laws impinging on gender issues and see how they might be improved. GR&AP has also worked hand-in-hand with government to draft new legislation, provided training on gender-related laws throughout the country and urged for law reform on several issues.
- Pilots Juvenile Justice Programme. With the aim of giving a 'second-chance' to juvenile offenders (most who were charged with shoplifting, housebreaking and theft) the Juvenile Justice Programme focused on investigating alternatives to the outdated and inappropriate system in which young offenders were tried, sentenced and punished.
- Releases first edition of Namibian Law Report. With the aim of making the nation's laws more accessible to a broader audience, the first edition of the Namibian Law Report was published. Law Reports, which chronicles important Namibia cases and rulings, have now been released for every year since Independence.
- Establishes the Constitutional and Human Rights Unit. The LAC set up the Constitutional and Human Rights Unit to guide the Centre's litigation and to focus on working on police matters, including police human rights training, and immigration issues. Today the Unit, known as HURICON, has extended itself to also be a voice for prisoners, hospital patients and other marginalized groups.
- Launches Land, Environment and Development (LEAD) Project. With an emphasis of expanding into rural areas and focusing on issues rural people face, the LEAD Project was formed. LEAD is often called to advise communities on land and environmental rights, development options in tourism and communal land initiatives such as communal area conservancies.
- Wins Award. Andrew Corbett, then the director of the LAC, accepted the prestigious UNICEF Maurice Pate Human Rights Award on behalf of the Legal Assistance Centre.
- Forms AIDS LAW Unit.
Aware of its duty to work towards the protection of the most vulnerable in society, the LAC provided its services in the health sector in the context of the HIV and AIDS pandemic.
Through education, litigation, legal advice, advocacy and research, the
LAC's work in the HIV and AIDS environment of a human rights approach to deal with the pandemic is highly sought after.
- Defends Caprivi Torture Victims. Following an attack that left 11 people dead in the Caprivian town of Katima-Mulilo, 300 suspected rebel fighters and civilian sympathizers were rounded up. Once in police custody, the suspects were reportedly tortured through severe repeated beatings, electrical shocks, humiliation tactics and death threats. Others in jail were reportedly denied food, legal representation and bail. In the years that have passed, the LAC has represented more than 125 clients who are demanding compensation or reparation from the state for allegedly perpetrating torture. The caseload has consumed LAC staff and continues to be at the forefront of the organization's mandate. Due to repeated delays, 10 years after the incident many remain waiting for their case to be heard in court.
- National Community Paralegal Volunteering Programme Established. The LAC set up a national community paralegal training programme to ensure communities had dedicated volunteers who were knowledgeable about the law and could advise others in their community about their legal rights.
- Restructuring. With a mandate to focus its attention on human rights and constitutional issues, the LAC decided to phase out its general advice services in the offices of Rundu, Ongwediva, Walvis Bay, Katutura and Keetmanshoop.
Government takes over Juvenile Justice Programme.
- Wins Award. Director Norman Tjombe received the Freedom of Expression Special Award from the Media Institute of Southern Africa.
- Re-opens South and North Offices. In partnership with Yelula/U-khâi, the LAC re-opened offices in both the north and south of the country. These offices cover the four north central regions of Namibia, and the Karas region in the south. They work with communities, individuals and marginalised groups in rural Namibia to strengthen their resources and support their vision in responding to the HIV and AIDS pandemic and supporting orphans and vulnerable children.
- Launches Orphan and Vulnerable Children Programme. The AIDS Law Unit embarks on an ambitious campaign to provide legal protection for orphans and vulnerable children left behind in the wake of the HIV-epidemic.
- First Female Director Appointed. Lawyer Toni Hancox is selected as the fifth director of the Legal Assistance Centre after Norman Tjombe steps down. She is the first female Director of the organisation
- Widens Approach to Human Rights. The LAC continues to play a crucial role in the building of a constitutional democracy through its work. The scope of the LAC's work has widened to incorporate education, research, law reform and affirmative action, as well as gender issues, children's issues, conservation, land and environmental issues. The LAC continues to expand its work, with emphasis being placed on the socioeconomic rights of Namibians.