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.
- Winner of the JP Karuaihe Award for Human Rights
- Defending the Right to Housing: In an urgent application, the LAC’s lawyers asked the court to declare the Squatters Proclamation of 1985 unconstitutional, as it did not take into consideration the circumstances of families with small children or the lack of available alternative housing. In his ruling, High Court Judge Petrus Damaseb granted the shack dwellers an interim interdict, declaring the Squatters Declaration of 1985 invalid and of no effect.
- Right to Water: The informal settlements in Otavi have been described as
‘a worst case scenario’ in terms of adequate sanitation. The
LAC has investigated and plans to represent residents in
upcoming court action.
- 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.
- 2nd time Winner of the JP Karuaihe Excellence Award for Human Rights
2011 Too much to mention. Click here
- Supporting the claim of “my body, my rights” The High Court delivered judgement in favour of three LAC clients who were sterilised after giving birth in state hospitals,, without their informed consent – the court could not find, however, that such sterilisations were linked to the fact that all three women were HIV positive.
NOTE: The government appealed this judgment but in 2014, the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal and confirmed the High Court’s judgment. This issue of quantum i.e. what damages government must pay to the aggrieved women, must still be decided.
- The LAC continued to monitor a court case which began in 2012, involving assault charges against several teachers in respect of the illegal use of corporal punishment in a private school. The case concluded in 2013, with all of the teachers being convicted of assault. This judgment provides unequivocal clarification that corporal punishment may not be used in either private or state schools. The teachers indicated that they will appeal the conviction in 2014 and this matter will be monitored further.
- Winner of the JP Karuaihe Award for Social Responsibility for giving back to the community. In December 2013, the LAC decided to utilize its Christmas party budget to put smiles on the faces of old and young. The Katutura Old Age Home and two orphanages were visited during this outreach endeavour.
As always for the LAC, 2014 was a year of action. During this year we saw rushed amendments made to the Constitution, despite strong protest from civil society about the lack of consultation on the proposed amendments. This illustrates the point that ensuring respect for human rights and the rule of law is not a short-term commitment.
Sadly, also in 2014 we were forced to close our Ongwediva office (the last of our regional offices) due to insufficient resources. We are now attempting to alleviate the resulting isolation by increasing our use of the media and other forms of modern technology, but many of our marginalised communities may not be able to access assistance at these levels.
Despite these challenges, in 2014 the LAC was able to deliver services of consistently high quality, and we continued building on our favourable reputation with our stakeholders.
We reaped success in all of our wide-ranging areas of intervention – from upholding the democratic right to vote, through strengthening legislation to prevent rhino poaching, to continuing the fight to address gender-based violence. The LAC is the only organisation of its kind in Namibia and our work is of vital importance.
In 2015, Namibia turned 25!
This milestone year in the country’s life heralds a quarter of a century of democratic rule underpinned by a progressive Constitution. Our Government has taken many positive steps, and we take note of these. However, we cannot ignore the fact that so many people in our country do not have much to celebrate at this time, because they are living in poverty. In the words of Mary Robinson, then UN Commissioner for Human Rights, poverty is “the greatest denial of the exercise of human rights”. And poverty, like everything else, does not exist in isolation; it is a result of a lack of education, a lack of economic empowerment, and an inability to assert one’s rights to the basics – shelter, food, healthcare and education – which every person needs to live a life of dignity.
We all need to feel counted, and a life of poverty negates this need.
In 2015 the LAC continued to support empowerment of the powerless, by means of educating people as to their rights and how to access them; research and subsequent support to policy makers; advocacy with stakeholders; and advising and representing people who had/have a rights-based claim. At all times it is remembered that no area of our work can be done in a separate compartment or in isolation, hence our different units work together, creating a synergy of human rights interventions which hopefully will have a bigger impact, and all units also work with government and other partners to maximise the changes that our work can make.
Also in 2015, the LAC took time to consider its impact and to plan for the years ahead. Ideally, the LAC should become an obsolete organisation, no longer needed, but this does not seem likely in the near future. It appears that the services of this sole public interest human rights law firm in Namibia will still be required in the foreseeable future. Our new strategic plan addresses four focal issues: inequality; socio-economic rights; the rule of law / access to justice; and emerging rights issues. We believe that addressing these areas will enhance our potential to improve the livelihood conditions of many.
A new vision statement was agreed upon:
“Namibia is a human-rights-based democracy founded on equality, justice and dignity.”
By the end of the strategic planning process, agreement had been reached that the following focal areas would be addressed within the next three to five years:
1. Inequality – incorporating issues of discrimination, marginalised communities, LGBTI, HIV, gender, children, disabilities and inheritance.
2. Socio-Economic Rights – with particular emphasis on health, education, water and sanitation, and also incorporating issues of disabilities, land, environment and poverty.
3. Rule of Law / Access to Justice – incorporating issues of public education, police brutality, due process, Namlex, Law Reports, governance, watchdog role, court process, elections and litigation.
4. Emerging Rights – to allow us to respond to topical issues quickly.
The overlapping of the four focal areas indicates the LAC’s belief that all human rights are inter-dependent and should not be dealt with in separate packages. The decision was also made to merge the Human Rights and Constitutional Unit (Huricon – a litigation unit) with the Aids Law Unit (ALU) to form the Social Justice Project (SJP). This serves to ensure a streamlined approach to the activities of Huricon and ALU, with the intention of doing more with fewer human and financial resources. In addition, by 2016 a number of ALU’s more strategic objectives had been globally addressed, and in some instances achieved, which in essence means that the focus can now be on education and access to treatment. Resorting under the “right to health”
banner, ALU falls comfortably within the parameters of the SJP.
It was Mary Robinson, the then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who said that “absolute poverty is the worst human rights problem in the world”.
Poverty underlines each and every human rights abuse dealt with at the LAC. How can people live a life of dignity if they cannot feed or house their children, or provide them with a worthwhile education and effective healthcare? It is with great concern that we must add that after 17 years at the LAC, we cannot emphatically say that a lot has improved in the human rights arena. It is cold comfort to know that if the LAC were not here, the situation would have been much worse.
We continue to fight our battle, alongside our partners, to bring about a life of dignity for all in Namibia. The time has come for all role players to stand together and to realise that it is our right to demand a better future. Let our children not see us as the generation that was passive in the face of inequality.
On another note, we bid farewell to three of our trustees. Elize Angula, Bisey Uirab and Nico Kaiyamo have served the LAC well. We thank them for their years of commitment and tireless support of the Centre’s work.
It has been 30 years since the LAC was founded.
The goal then was to protect those who had been tortured and mistreated by the ruling apartheid regime.
Independence followed and the LAC’s role changed into an organisation that would support new legislation and policy focusing on the protection of the human rights outlined in the Namibian Constitution.
The occasion of a significant anniversary in the life of an organisation provides the opportunity to reflect on the impact made through its activities. Has the LAC contributed to the needs of those most marginalised? Yes, we have. But has that meant real change for our people? This is a question that is not so easy to answer. While the LAC has made a major impact on aligning both legislation and policy with internationally accepted human rights, what is lacking is making this impact real in the lives of those we serve. This is not something the LAC can do alone, but what we can do is continue to hold the relevant stakeholders within government and other organisations accountable by being persistent and in some cases just plain annoying.
It does not give us joy to say that the LAC is still an organisation that is sorely needed in an independent Namibia. This is sadly the reality.
We challenge all within this beautiful country to make a positive contribution to the lives of all within it, however small – so that the LAC will not be needed for 30 more years.
The Legal Assistance Centre works towards its vision: “Namibia is a human-rights-based democracy founded on equality, justice and dignity.”
In 2019 this vision was challenged in many ways.
The Social Justice Project had to intervene for people who are vulnerable due to economic or personal status, in matters involving, for instance, access to functional healthcare,
assault suffered at the hands of the police, and the rights of refugees.
The Gender Research & Advocacy Project continued to advocate on the status of women and children, and assisted further in the drafting of legislation necessary for their protection.
The Land, Environment & Development Project continued fighting to protect the right to land, and to protect our wildlife and environment for future generations.
- The ‘new normal’ in 2020 meant doing things differently. The status quo was challenged immensely and the LAC had to realign its activities to continue to make a difference. We are fortunate to have the facilities and infrastructure necessary to do so. The Covid pandemic has truly shown us that different communities face different challenges. Some are frustrated that they cannot leave home and go to the mall or the cinema.
Going out for dinner would be a welcome respite. Others do not have the wherewithal to fret about such niceties. Their priorities are food, adequate shelter and, not least, access to water to keep their hands clean as recommended by pandemic protocols. This is a time to focus with renewed energy on the needs of all, across all communities. Human rights are not negotiable – not in any circumstances.