Organizing mock tribunals to raise awareness of human rights abuses and influence public policy

BAOBAB for Women’s Human Rights, along with the Civil Resource Development and Documentation Centre, organized the first National Tribunal on Violence against Women. Held in March 2002 in Abuja, Nigeria’s capi­tal, the tribunal was unofficial and not legally binding, but the testimony was real. Thirty-three women testified, sharing their experiences in order to help the public learn about the abuses suffered by women in their homes, in their communities and at the hands of the government, including sexual harassment, domestic violence, rape and female genital mutilation.

The judges on the tribunal, all Nigerians, were selected based on their prominence and their concern for women’s rights. They included two judges, one a Supreme Court justice, a former ambassador, a member of the National Human Rights Commission and a former attorney general. The tribunal was open to the public and the organizers took special care to invite journalists, police, commissioners, legislators and international observers. Different types of human rights abuses were grouped into different sessions. The panel of judges heard the testimony and asked questions, then convened in private. Afterwards, rather than handing down a sentence, the judges made public policy recommendations.

It was the first major organized attempt in the country to break the public silence on violence against women. As each woman finished her testimony — or the testimony of her sisters, for the woman who did not survive — the audience was often in tears. At the end the panel of judges retired to deliberate, and returned with a powerful set of recommendations for significant policy changes to protect Nigerian women from violence and human rights abuse.

This mock tribunal was organized by BAOBAB For Women’s Human Rights and by the Civil Resource Development and Documentation Center (CIRDDOC). The idea developed after seeing the impact of tribunals like those in Vienna and Tokyo, and the world-wide attention they attracted. CIRDDOC had itself, previously, organized a mock tribunal in Anambra State in South East Nigeria, addressing human rights violations. This event attracted a strong public turnout — ample media coverage and an audience of from 150 to 500 people over the course of the day — and began further discussions on human rights violations in general and those affecting women in particular.

Since 1996, BAOBAB had been running workshops and producing radio programs to draw attention to violence against women, and working with women on ways to recognize violence and build defenses against it. Prior to this event, violence against women was given no serious attention in the press, in the halls of government, or in law enforcement. Engaging prominent persons in such a high-profile event facilitated the discussion for policy changes.

The tribunal and the media coverage around it created greater public awareness that abuses against women do exist and that they are serious. It helped facilitate the passing of state legislation on different issues affecting women and advanced a national bill on violence against women.

For more information on this tactic, read our in-depth case study.

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What we can learn from this tactic: 

We don’t have to wait until a particular form of human rights violation has ended to begin using stories for heal­ing and reconciliation and to mobilize public opinion. In Nigeria, a group convened a mock tribunal focused on women’s rights.

Since the tribunals can raise awareness only when word spreads to the general public, BAOBAB’s success re­quired a good media strategy, along with strong leadership and a shrewd assessment of their political needs. BAOBAB chose, for example, not to invite any international experts to serve as judges, so the Nigerian govern­ment would have no opportunity to disregard its findings as “outside meddling.” Others who wish to implement this tactic will also need to carefully tailor the make-up and scope of their tribunals in order to have the most impact on their intended audience. Tribunals such as these have been used in communities in many parts of the world for a number of purposes, such as recognizing abuses and raising public awareness.