Uganda's government and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) have launched a pilot mobile court system to improve access to justice for victims of crimes in Nakivale, the country's oldest and largest refugee settlement.
The magistrate's court, whose first session began on 15 April, will hear cases of robbery, land disputes, child rape, sexual and gender-based violence, attempted murder, and murder. The project - a collaboration of the Uganda government, UNHCR, Makerere University's Refugee Law Project (RLP) and the Uganda Human Rights Council - aims to benefit some 68,000 refugees and 35,000 Ugandan nationals in the settlement.
“With the nearest law court currently 50km away in Kabingo, Isingiro, access to justice has been a real problem for refugees and locals alike. As a result many fail to report crimes and are forced to wait for long periods before their cases are heard in court,” said a UNHCR briefing on the programme.
The mobile court will hold three sessions a year. Each session will last 15 to 30 days and hear up to 30 cases. Officials hope to extend the project to other refugee settlements in Uganda to enable more refugees to access speedier justice.
"Most of the courts are far away from the settlements, and refugee complainants faced challenges of transportation for themselves and witnesses," Charity Ahumuza, programme manager for access to justice at RLP, told IRIN. "With the courts brought to them, the cost of seeking justice is reduced. The courts will also reduce the backlog of cases that exist of cases that arise in the settlements."
"Refugees have welcomed this initiative since it is about bringing justice closer to them," John Kilowok, UNHCR Protection Officer in Uganda, told IRIN.
Experts say the project could face a number of operational challenges, including a need for funding and a shortage of trained court interpreters. Uganda has over 165,000 refugees from the Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia and South Sudan.
"The settlements are far away, and distance in accessing the court is likely to become a challenge. Language, too, will be a problem. The service providers through UNHCR are conducting training for interpreters to help in this issue," said RLP's Ahumuza. "The sustainability of the courts, I believe, will depend on availability of finances. However, the judiciary continues to face financial constraints."
Angelo Izama, a Ugandan fellow at the Open Society Institute, says the shortage of justice in the refugee settlements is a reflection of poor access to justice across the country, a situation that needs to be addressed.
"Improving the delivery of justice helps tremendously given that, ordinarily, the severe case backlog makes matters worse for nationals - let alone foreigners. The real crisis now is not providing refugees and nationals in western Ugandan fast relief but filling the many vacancies in the judiciary so that, nationally, justice is expedited," he said. "While justice processes improved on our side can help communities - both Ugandan and foreign - live better governed lives, the ultimate investment would be in improving governance across the border."
"There is need for a holistic approach to look at the refugee issues in Uganda. We have to look at policy, immigration and defence lawyers for fair trials. Will the suspects have access to defence lawyers, or will they be accorded with lawyers to defend them in court?" asked Nicholas Opiyo, a constitutional and human rights lawyer in Kampala, Uganda’s capital. "Sustainability is a very crucial element in this court... If they don't put good and proper systems to support this court, it will be a waste of time and money."