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  4. September 2006 - Volume 45
  5. Frontline Human Rights Defenders at Local Level:
    Community Paralegals in the Pacific

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FOCUS September 2006 Volume 45

Frontline Human Rights Defenders at Local Level:
Community Paralegals in the Pacific

Imrana Jalal

* Imrana Jalal is the Human Rights Adviser at RRRT, as well as a commissioner with the International Commission of Jurists and board member of the International Council of Human Rights Policy. This article is a condensed version of a speech she gave at Amnesty International Australia's inaugural conference, Human Rights: A Pacific Agenda - Partnerships & Perspectives, in September 2004.

The Pacific Regional Rights Resource Team (RRRT) engages local Pacific Island communities through our Community Paralegal Training (CPT) program-building and supporting a network of community-level human rights activists and advocates across the region - from the urban hub of Suva to some of the remotest islands of Kiribati and Vanuatu. In partnership with locally based organizations, we have now trained an extensive, 300-strong network of community paralegals (CPs) from the Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu.

These CPs are frontline human rights defenders at the local level. We do not call them human rights advocates for strategic reasons. Each country has an informal network of CPs and in the Solomons they have formed into a cohesive network through an association.


CP training lasts between 6-8 weeks spread over two years and our partner organizations in Pacific Island countries try to select participants on the basis that they will be in strategic positions to mobilize and monitor around human rights issues. We believe in ongoing technical and other support. We prefer potential CPs to be working in organizations which are already viable so that their human rights knowledge and skills enhance their ability to be agents of positive change. We are exploring ways to further strengthen their capacity to enable them to work more effectively in their communities by empowering ordinary people to demand their rights from those in positions of power, to assert their rights and to address the many human rights issues and violations that occur at all levels in Pacific Island Countries (PICs).

During the human rights CP Training the participants cover topics and issues including gender, equality and discrimination, Bills of Rights, fundamental rights and freedoms, the legal system, constitutions, democracy, government, good governance, the coup cycle phenomena, family law, development, poverty and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the links between them. They study the "Big Seven" international human rights conventions (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, Convention on the Rights of the Child, Convention Against Torture, Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and their Families, and Optional Protocols) and learn how to report to the various United Nations human rights monitoring committees.

They learn skills in lobbying, advocacy and strategies for change. They learn how to run national campaigns, but also micro skills to bring about community change and provide human rights support to individuals. The women and youth CPs from East Honiara Constituency in Solomon Islands have used these strategies for change to actually get their Member of Parliament to provide more than $20,000 to assist them in human rights awareness in their constituencies. The bulk of RRRT programme funds and human resources are spent on CP Training. For us at RRRT, we learn from them the key issues in the islands and they help us to work in several different contexts. I say this because it should not be assumed that the strategies that work well in Fiji can necessarily be applied in Solomon Islands, Vanuatu or Kiribati.

What is significant about the training is that CPs learn not just to use human rights to make gains in the law or in civil and political rights (which is perhaps the traditional use of human rights), but to assert economic, social and cultural (ESC) rights and to gain access to goods, services and delivery. They play a dual role in not only raising issues about human rights but are also monitors of human rights violations at local level.

We work at this level because this is where the most human rights violations occur in the PICs. In very real ways the CPs use human rights to help those who are poor and/or marginalized in their communities. Sometimes the changes are at a micro community level and sometimes the changes are at a structural macro level.

Work at the community level

Some of the diverse changes that have been brought about by CPs (working with partners at individual, agency and macro levels) include:

  • Assisting in the successful passing of the Fiji Family Law Act which will give unprecedented rights to women and children;
  • Mobilizing against a strict discriminatory dress code for women in Solomon Islands;
  • Helping poor women gain custody of their children, enforce maintenance payments and in getting domestic violence orders in several PICs;
  • Mobilizing against the dumping of toxic waste by a Taiwanese company in Makira province in Solomon Islands;
  • Negotiating speaking rights for women in local village decision-making bodies in Guadalcanal in the Solomons and in the Nakamal in Vanuatu;
  • Establishing a new kindergarten in Malaita (Solomon Islands) after many years of waiting for the State to do so;
  • Mobilizing against a village decree which sought to deny women rights to access land in Malekula in Vanuatu;
  • Enforcing the proper counting of ballot boxes in a remote village in Guadalcanal;
  • Helping obtain the provision of cement toilets to 28 households in Tebero village, Abaigang in Kiribati;
  • Using knowledge of governance processes in an outer island in Vanuatu to mobilize a (the CP's) village to begin its own education center instead of relying on the State, when the State had not been responsive to demands for access to education.
  • Using their knowledge to assist in the constitutional reform process in Solomon Islands by helping in the full participation of citizens.

I share with you these diverse examples as an illustration of how human rights capacity building in the PICs has created different types of change, not just in the arena of civil and political rights but from the household to the community levels. It is also appropriate to share with you the words of a couple of our CPs, who have felt the impact of the CPT program at both the personal and structural levels. According to a CP police officer from Luganville in Vanuatu, becoming a CP has made him change as an individual:

I used to beat my wife and kids heavily because I thought that was a good way of teaching. Now whenever I get frustrated I deal with my frustrations verbally. Mistakes will always occur in everyday activities. But for me, after having knowledge about CEDAW and CRC, I did change a lot (honestly speaking). I now know that beating is a crime and is totally against human rights - especially CEDAW and the CRC - and also our mama law, the Constitution. Now if there is anything wrong in our home, I think twice before taking any action because any action taken might lead to an offence, which contradicts our internal and international laws. It also helps me to respect my wife and kids the same as required by them. This has reduced the great fear that my children have been experiencing.

Meanwhile, for a CP Primary School Principal in Tonga, the program empowered her to challenge the status quo:

In July 2005, public servants were informed of a new salary structure a mere week prior to it being implemented. Many weren't happy with it as it basically ignored seniority and qualifications. I was elected to an interim committee to write a petition to the Public Service Commission and was among a group of four public servants who delivered the letter to the Prime Minister's Office. We gave the Commission three working days and informed them that we would go on strike if there was no satisfactory response to our concerns. At the end of the third day we received a response, however it didn't address any of the 11 main concerns we had raised. We called another meeting on the fourth day, where it was decided that we would go on strike the following day.

Thanks to the Community Paralegal Training, I had the confidence to speak to the other public servants about our constitutional rights to withhold our service - especially if we're not being paid enough - and that our rights to a better standard of living, to health, education and fair treatment were being violated by government, via the Public Service Commission. I felt I was the first to kick the ball of public expression in this first ever industrial action by the public servants and support came in day after day for six and a half weeks until government decided to grant us every recommendation we made - the best of all being the 60, 70 and 80 per cent salary increases which had been withheld from us for nearly 20 years. We've now all learnt the advantages of standing up for what we believe in.

None of this may be earth shattering stuff in the vein of Asia and Africa, or traditional human rights interventions, but these are the contexts of community-level frontline human rights defenders.

The question might well be asked, how do we know that these changes were brought about by CPs? In bringing to you some of these vignettes we have tried honestly to apply the "but for" test - i.e. would these changes have happened "but for" the intervention? In many cases it is difficult to say. These changes were sometimes brought about by CPs acting solely and sometimes in concert with other actors, but in all cases they were strategic agents of change. Their knowledge and skills at mobilizing, advocating and lobbying were crucial factors in being either the initial catalyst for change or crucial in an important strategic step which ultimately brought about the change.

These changes illustrate the diverse ways in which human rights capacity building can assist the plight of the marginalized and excluded.


But what of their difficulties? There are many.

Many of them stem from being advocates in small PIC communities. Here are some examples. Unlike many parts of Africa and Asia, defenders do not face immediate threats to their physical security. Exceptions to this include the coups of 1987 and 2000 in Fiji and Solomon Islands. However, they face social isolation, alienation, hostility and structural and financial obstacles in doing human rights work.

The small size of island populations makes it socially difficult for CPs to take an unpopular position against the State, the status quo or chiefs in villages or settlements. Often they are related to or are wantok(belong to the same clans) to human rights violators. Openly taking a different position is seen as going against the culture or a betrayal of one's culture. To criticize one's community or province is seen as letting down the side, especially in relation to how foreigners might view them. Social exclusion can often result.

In bigger countries advocates have enough social net- works to mitigate against the loss of familial or social ties. In small PICs they often only have one social network. So advocacy can often mean loss of familial and social ties. When a defender in Tonga mobilized her women's group to fight against a new law that limited free speech she was ostracized by a social group very important to her.

When island defenders take a strong human rights position they are often accused of "not speaking on behalf of us" or of imposing Western values or of being used to impose donor agendas. There are not enough human rights defenders to support each other so defenders often work in isolation in their communities. There is not a sufficient critical mass of human rights defenders in most PICs (with perhaps the exception of Fiji). A related problem is that there are so few defenders that they are overburdened with human rights work.

A defender in the Solomons says that:

We are seen as culture/religion destroyers promoting a Western culture and usually this creates blockages in advocating for human rights. We are seen as people who are promoting marriage break downs, or who are promoting children under the CRC to rebel against parents or taking away parents rights. Equality is resisted so much because it is seen as against culture and religion ... People only run for human rights when they are in a problem and this is most irritating because then their expectations are so high about changes to be done over night. Most of our (Solomon Islands) CPs are volunteers so they face financial, transportation and communication problems in doing human rights work.

But there are some advantages and opportunities to working in small island communities too. The small populations offer protection and assistance to defenders as well. Human rights defenders are highly visible and well known. It would be almost impossible, for example, to arrest a defender and for it not to be known and for the community or family not to do any- thing about it. Personal links also open doors for defenders in lobbying. It would be unthinkable for instance for a Minister of State to refuse to see a defender who is his or her wantok.


In conclusion, the vast majority of Pacific Islanders regard human rights as promoting individual rights over collective or group rights. For islanders, the group should always take precedence over the individual. In fact it is considered unseemly even for an individual to insist on rights in the face of open opposition from the group or the leaders of the village, clan or community. It is considered against customary protocol, as having bad manners, and even considered downright selfish. It is also seen as asserting one's individuality and not just one's human rights. The notion of individualism is not one that is necessarily prized in PIC cultures.

Because culture and human rights are seen as directly opposing values, this alienates island communities for whom their culture provides identity, solace, nourishment and hope in a world that is changing rapidly and is overwhelming and bewildering. The aggressive traditional and/or blaming approach of many human rights organizations internationally and locally does not work in the Pacific. We have found that out the hard way.

RRRT and our partners have tried to find innovative ways to make the same gains but within a Pacific context, accepting, for example, the deeply religious culture of island societies. Because of this we tend to work "with" rather than "against". If we work "against" very few actually know it!! And because of this we work also with pastors, ministers and chiefs, some of whom are excellent paralegals.

This approach in no way takes away from our belief that human rights are universal, inalienable, indivisible and interconnected, or that our Pacific cultures should not be examined or not found wanting. Far from it. The challenge is to build an island human rights culture, but one that allows islanders to believe in both their culture and in human rights and to find the appropriate balances and compromises. With this knowledge we hope that where and when there are direct conflicts, island citizens will make the correct human rights choices but with full knowledge (from well informed perspectives) and not out of ignorance and imposition.

The life affirming and inspirational work of these frontline human rights defenders gives me and others at RRRT the strength to carry on with our own human rights capacity building work by continuing to teach, assist and provide them with our support but also to learn from them.

For further information, please contact: Hannah Harborow, Communications Coordinator, Pacific Regional Rights Resource Team (RRRT), 2nd Floor, Pacific House, Butt St., Suva, Fiji. Mailing address : Private Mail Bag, Suva, Fiji; ph (679) 330 5582; fax (679) 330 6582 ; e-mail: fj ;

The Pacific Regional Rights Resource Team (RRRT)

RRRT was set up in Suva in 1995 by the United Kingdom's Department for International Development (DFID) as a regional legal literacy project to enhance the legal and social status of women with a focus in eight Pacific Island countries: Fiji, Cook Islands, Samoa, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Tonga, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands. Since then RRRT has undertaken new and more challenging projects in these islands in response to both evolving global themes as well as local, including; fighting gender discrimination, increasing access to justice, building the capacity of civil society to participate in and monitor democracy and enhancing the capacity of Pacific Island leaders in the areas of law and justice

RRRT is a technical advisory and training organization that focuses on building the capacity of national and regional partners to alleviate poverty through increasing awareness of rights and responsibilities at all levels from grassroots community groups to Ministers of Parliament. RRRT believes that in order to address the current situation in the Pacific of deteriorating services and resultant increasing levels of poverty, training of key policymakers and implementers, including judiciary, magistrates and other purveyors of justice as well as community-based organizations will enhance the capacity of governments to provide services, as well as enhance civil societies ability to both demand for, and monitor those services. RRRT strongly believes that working with all levels will assist in both state and civil society to enhance their knowledge and capacity in accessing justice and seeking solutions through democratic means.

Currently administered by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), with funds fro m the New Zealand Agency for International Development (NZAID) and Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), RRRT is working towards becoming the first Pacific indigenous technical advisory and training institution in the area of good governance and democracy.