Training local leaders as mediators and resources on human rights

In Uganda, the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI) trains local leaders to help community members with legal complaints in a way that avoids the problems and frustrations of using the formal judicial system. FHRI teaches these leaders how to educate their communities about their constitutional and human rights. It also gives them paralegal skills, enabling them to provide mediation, counseling and advice so that citizens can obtain re­dress for abuses and exercise their full human rights.

Many people in rural Uganda are unaware of their full constitutional rights and of what can be done when those rights are violated. They also perceive the legal system to be inaccessible, as it is located in the city: its costs are high and it uses unfamiliar language and behavior.

FHRI chooses participants who have demonstrated leadership skills and are important figures in their com­munities, such as teachers, business leaders, community elders or medical workers. The training is a week-long curriculum addressing legal processes, discussion methods and ways to create communication networks. It also provides participants with the skills they need to monitor, document and report human rights abuses. Some vol­unteers become responsible for specific groups in the community, such as women, children, the elderly or others.

When they have completed their training, these paralegal volunteers form meeting centers that address problems in ways tailored to their communities. This encourages alternative solutions — such as counseling, mediation, referrals to existing organizations and advice with paperwork — so people can avoid the challenges and costs of the formal judicial system.

FHRI has now trained more than 1,000 volunteer paralegals and has published the Paralegal Reference Handbook (available from FHRI).

New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 

In many rural or provincial areas, access to the legal system and to conflict resolution services is extremely lim­ited. A group in Uganda is working to change this by training local people in mediation skills.

This tactic increases access to justice. And, when too often the call for human rights comes from outside a community, it also creates local advocates for these rights. (The Thongbai Thongpao Foundation in Thailand also brings legal education to rural areas, but it focuses more on educating community members who may require legal services than on training local leaders to provide those services. See page 145.) FHRI’s approach could be used in other situations where legal recourse is not an option for people and where community leaders are willing and able to take on this role.

The success of this tactic relies on the assurance that the leaders identified from the outside have genuine moral authority in their communities and will use it along with their new mediation skills. Also, the short-term training may need to be supplemented with long-term follow-up and support.