Indra Van Gisbergen, Globalization of Justice Project Officer at Avocats Sans Frontières

Brussels-based Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF) is dedicated to supporting the rights and legal systems of peoples in many troubled parts of the world.

Brussels Legal spoke with ASF's Indra Van Gisbergen about the organisation and how international lawyers in Brussels can help with its current projects.

BL: What is ASF?

IVG: ASF is a non-governmental organisation based in Brussels. In brief, the organisation has four main objectives: to ensure effective justice for vulnerable groups in parts of the developing world; to promote respect for fundamental human rights; to promote responsibility and accountability of public and private 'actors' in society; and to reduce poverty through increasing access to social justice.

ASF is made up of lawyers and people with an interest in fulfilling the organisation's aims.

BL: What is ASF's background?

IVG: ASF first started in 1992 in Brussels; it was founded by a group of Belgian lawyers. The organisation expanded considerably after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Only a few lawyers and judges survived the massacres where as over 100.000 people, accused of participation at the genocide were waiting in overcrowed prisons to be tried. In order to meet the urgent needs to organise the defence of the accused as well as the victims a large number of ASF lawyers were sent to Rwanda to directly help 'on the ground'.

In 1999 ASF set up a permanent office in Brussels. Currently the office has 8 full-time staff, some stagiaires and a 120 people, mainly local staff, in the field..

Today ASF has 4 permanent missions (Rwanda, Burundi, Congo and East Timor). It has a presence in Israel-Palestine (but no permanent office) and will soon be operational in Uganda and Algeria.

ASF typically works with local lawyers and organisations. It is rare for our lawyers to be based in one of our permanent missions.

BL: Is ASF only Brussels-based?

IVG: ASF in Belgium is an autonomous organisation. We raise our own finance and run our own projects. There are other sister organisations of the ASF family in the Netherlands, France and Sweden.

BL: What practical activities is ASF undertaking?

IVG: ASF deals with a number of practical issues that make a day-to-day difference to people's lives in the countries it works in.

For example, we help with legal representation before courts, particularly for vulnerable groups like children and women caught up in massacres (such as Rwanda). We also support legal 'clinics' that help with access to justice. These clinics are especially important for dealing with issues like land rights. Furthermore ASF is helping build 'legal' capacity in some countries by helping to train judges and lawyers.

BL: Can international lawyers in Brussels help ASF?

IVG: Certainly. We are always looking for volunteers. In general, ASF is looking for lawyers who are willing to work on a pro-bono basis. For business lawyers there is always the issue of a conflict of interest. But if that is not an issue for a particular project, ASF appreciates any commitment to help.

There are two specific projects we are running at the moment where help from international lawyers in Brussels would be appreciated.

One project concerns the globalisation of justice - in particular, advocacy work for NGOs dealing with global issues. One key topic within this project is social coropate social responsibility of multinational companies. This topic touches upon many legal issues and human rights. , The type of legal issues involved means the expertise of business-orientated specialists is welcome!

Another project deals with international justice and the international criminal court in the Hague, in particular supporting the interests of victims of crimes against humanity. Our organisation has a network of lawyers and is looking to develop it further. We are particularly interested in any lawyers with international criminal law experience.

BL: Are there any other ways to help or participate?

IVG: Anyone interested can become a member of ASF. Members receive a newsletter and are invited to our monthly 'brown bag' lunches (ie everyone brings their own sandwiches). We have a variety of speakers; two recent examples are a former staff of the Truth and reconciliation commission in Sierra Leone and a representative of the Council of Europe's committee on Torture.

Additionally, anyone interested can make a donation to ASF. As a non-profit organisation, we are always looking for a balance of funding from the public and private sector. More information about ASF can be found via our website www.asf.be

We hope to develop our ASF website further. One feature we want to develop will allow volunteers to fill in their area of speciality/expertise into a database. Even if ASF does not need someone's assistance immediately, it is helpful to be able to call upon it in the future.

BL: Good luck and thank you for your time.