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Guinea-Bissau: “The situation of justice is terrible, but there are encouraging signs,” UN experts says

Spanish | Portuguese

BISSAU / GENEVA (19 October 2015) – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Mónica Pinto, exhorted the government of Guinea-Bissau to support and dignify the work of judges and prosecutors, as well as to recognize the central role that lawyers play in the judicial system, the exercise of democracy and the strengthening of the rule of law.

“The authorities must prioritize urgent measures to guarantee better access to justice and to rebuild the population’s trust in the institutions”, said Ms. Pinto at the end of her first official visit* to Guinea-Bissau, where she observed serious dysfunctions in the justice system and material deficiencies that “create a fertile ground for independence, corruption and impunity to grow”.

“Several interlocutors noted that the situation of justice is sad, terrible – in line with the country’s situation”, said the human rights expert. Nonetheless, she stressed that the population considered as positive the recent ruling of the Supreme Court of Justice that declared unconstitutional the appointment of a new Prime Minister in August of this year.

“Many in Guinea-Bissau, as well as in the international community, received this decision as an assertion of the independence of the Court. This ruling revived the credibility of the justice system”, said Ms. Pinto, citing one of the persons she interviewed during her country visit.

The Special Rapporteur observed multiple and grave deficiencies: “Justice does not reach the people; it is concentrated in the capital and a few cities in the countryside. In the rest of the country, access to justice – a requisite necessary to exercise one’s rights – is illusory: there are no judges, no prosecutors, and no lawyers.

She also indicated that access to justice is expensive and that many cannot afford the required court fees. The length of procedures is excessive, and the judicial backlog is such that it is a step away from creating a situation of denial of justice. “The judicial institutions lack basic means to run properly – reflecting a chronic shortage of resources in the State”, she said.

The expert further stressed the importance of guaranteeing the security of judges, prosecutors and lawyers, as well as that of protecting victims and witnesses.

The Special Rapporteur stated that the absence of courts in most parts of the country and the already mentioned high fees lead people to reach out to “traditional justice” mechanisms, which mediate between parties to solve conflicts, but without necessarily considering positive national and international law. In that regard, it is important that the formal justice remain the institution called to apply norms, in particular when acts justified by traditions challenge these norms, such as early marriage, female genital mutilation, or domestic violence.

“Centres for Access to Justice – which offer legal consultations, mediation and conciliation, and legal orientation and assistance for litigation – are an important and successful initiative, that must be preserved, reinforced and extended to the rest of the country, and must receive adequate funding form the State”, Ms. Pinto said.

The Special Rapporteur also received information regarding prosecutors’ and judicial police’s lack of access to scientific and forensic evidence. The country lacks institutions able to conduct procedures such as DNA testing, ballistic expertise, or telephone tapping. This situation results in high impunity rates and does not allow the prosecution of organized crime, such as trafficking of persons, arms, or drugs, money laundering and other.

The expert stressed her concerns in relation to the military jurisdiction, which extends almost as if it were a personal jurisdiction; such jurisdiction does not count with a reviewing instance in the ordinary justice and most of its members do not hold law degrees.

“An important exercise of introspection by the institutions of the judicial system and the government is necessary to frame the current situation and highlight the priorities”, she said.

In this context, the Special Rapporteur stressed that “for the population to regain trust in the independence of justice, it is crucial that the actors of this system be able to act efficiently.

The Special Rapporteur will formulate recommendations in this regard in the report she will present in June 2016 before the Human Rights Council.

(*) Check the Special Rapporteur’s full end-of-mission statement (in Portuguese and Spanish): http://www.ohchr.org/SP/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=16616&LangID=S

Ms. Mónica Pinto took up her functions as UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers on 1 August 2015. Ms. Pinto is a professor of international law and human rights law at the Law School of the University of Buenos Aires, where she is currently the Dean. She has long-standing experience working on human rights issues in a variety of settings, including for the United Nations. She has also appeared as legal counsel and/or expert before different human rights bodies, arbitral tribunals and the International Court of Justice. Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Judiciary/Pages/IDPIndex.aspx

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

UN Human Rights, country page – Guinea-Bissau: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Judiciary/Pages/IDPIndex.aspx

For more information and media requests, please contact:
In Bissau: Júlia Alhinho (+245 6136045; email: alhinho@un.org)
In Geneva: Amanda Flores (+41 22 917 9186 / aflores@ohchr.org)

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)

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