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Equal Justice Foundation Report - Selina Tom-Johnson
Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative
I had the wonderful opportunity to work in Accra, Ghana this summer, thanks in part to the Equal Justice Foundation. I started work on June 1, 2010 at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) Africa office at Asylum Downs in Accra. Immediately after settling in, I was updated on the CHRI’s past achievements, current and future objectives. I was told to bring whatever ideas I had to the Program. It so happens that at the time I started my internship at CHRI, the main focus was on Ghana’s Right to Information Bill that was before Parliament. The concern at that point was how to go about enforcing an implementation process. Unfortunately, even though the Right to Information Bill was before Parliament, most Ghanaians were not aware of the Bill or its provisions and protections. Therefore, the Coalition (CHRI and its allies) felt that in order for the bill to be a successful and efficient law, there needed to be mass awareness for the Bill. One of my first tasks was to find ways to spread awareness of the bill to every nook and cranny. I began working on a Right to Information Pamphlet. The purpose of the pamphlet was to simplify the Right to Information message to the constituents of Ghana. The pamphlet outlined the importance of Right to information and a Right to Information law; the benefits that could be derived from a Right to Information law; what factors were needed in a Right to Information law; and what the constituents of Ghana could do to promote the Right to Information.
My next assignment was to attend a video conference on the implementation of a Right to Information law. The first speaker spoke about the Jamaican Experience. She talked about the challenges that were faced to get everyone on board. She said that in order for an effective implementation process for the Right to Information bill, all public authorities and the people needed to be involved. She stated that civil service participation and awareness were needed for the implementation process to work. Finally, she stressed that there has to be transparency in the process. She recalled that during the implementation process in Jamaica, there was a lot of mistrust on the part of the people. Therefore, in order to achieve public support for the bill, they had to inform the people about the bill. During the video conference, the issue of Records Management was discussed. The preconditions that were needed for Freedom of Information to be effective were discussed. The panelist on Records Management discussed the use of information technology to keep records. At the end of the panelists’ presentation, questions were put forth by audiences in Uganda, Ghana and South Africa and discussed in depth.
After gaining some insight into the implementation process of other countries Right to Information Bill, CHRI hosted two workshops that discussed in depth ways to achieve an efficient and successful implementation process and a Right to Information Bill that was effective and long-lasting. The workshop invited the media and Parliamentarians to share in the discussion ways to achieve the objective of a successful implementation process. The topics discussed ranged from promoting a culture of openness as an implementation mechanism for the Right to Information Law, to Records Management and raising support and sensitization on the Right to Information Law through training. Both workshops had great turn-out and in the end was a great step in the right direction of raising awareness among the constituents of Ghana.
Subsequently, I was assigned to write an article about the Right to Information in Ghana. I wrote on the implementation process of Ghana’s Right to Information Bill and its challenges. Basically, my report was modeled around the video conference and the two workshops that I attended in Accra. I wrote about the progress that the Ghana Coalition on the Right to Information has made and the challenges that they now faced in reaching the people.
After the workshop, I was given an assignment to do research on Human Rights Issues affecting the 5 West African Commonwealth Countries and to figure out what continues to be a persistent trend among these countries. I gathered human rights issues on the Gambia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Cameroun and Nigeria. One of the main persistent trends was the overpopulation of the prison system and the lack of legal aid for indigent defendant. I visited one of the prisons in Ghana and it was shocking to realize that due process was almost non-existent. One of the goals of the CHRI is to establish a legal aid system in Ghana and also in Sierra Leone. Since I am a native of Sierra Leone, I was able to provide information on the situation back home, as I had just recently visited.
Finally, since I had to work at the Judiciary Service of Ghana, I was given the task of researching Ghana’s Judiciary records management and how accessible it was for the citizens of Ghana or anyone to obtain information concerning decisions rendered by the Court.
I had so much fun advocating for human rights this summer. Africa is a continent that is quickly developing and becoming a force internationally to be reckoned with. However, issues concerning economic, social, civil and political rights still persist. My goal is to practice International and Human Rights Law and this experience solidify that goal. I believe that in the future, I will be able to carve my own niche in this area. A lot of work needs to be done, in terms of advocating for human rights in Africa. People still need to be aware that they have a right to obtain information from their government, a right to be able to hold government officials accountable for any misconduct, a right to demand transparency within the government, a right to due process and so on and so forth. I believe that as a native of Africa, my task is to go back and be involved in rectifying human rights violations and empowering the people. Through this experience, made possible in part by EJF, I was exposed to all three branches of government and through this exposure had some understanding on how their work impacted our advocacy. I am so grateful for this experience. I can’t wait to actually start working in this area of Law!!!!! Thanks EJF!!!