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Going to Court: Legal Advocacy

For nearly every social movement, law is an indispensable tool for advocates. It may include legal advice, legal rights booklets for citizens, and public interest litigation, among many resources. Legal advocacy usually uses the judicial system to advance social change goals by bringing forward a legal case in court that focuses on improving a situation for a group of disadvantaged people.

© Illustration by Civil Society Academy

This article looks at two interesting cases of legal activism—one about converting government schemes into legal entitlements through a framework law and the other on how a wrongdoer was punished for atrocities committed against humanity.

A landmark case in legal advocacy for the right to food comes from India. The Supreme Court of India has established itself as a champion of food security and committed itself to realizing the right to food. Through its landmark decision in the public interest litigation Petition (Civil) No. 196/2001, Peoples Union for Civil Liberties vs. Union of India & Others, the Supreme Court explicitly established a constitutional human right to food and determined a basic nutritional floor for millions of impoverished people in the country. The Court reconfigured specific government schemes into legal entitlements, setting out in detail minimum allocations of food grains and supplement nutrients and clearly articulated how these schemes are to be implemented.


The Right to Food Campaign in India: an example of how a network spearheaded a campaign [1]

The Right to Food Campaign in India is an informal, decentralized network of individuals and organizations committed to realizing the right to food. Begun in 2001 as an offshoot of a public interest litigation (litigation undertaken to secure public interest and to demonstrate the availability of justice for disadvantaged parties) in the Supreme Court of India, the campaign quickly grew into a national movement.

Genesis of the campaign: The campaign began when the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Rajasthan, submitted a writ petition to the Supreme Court in April 2001. The prevalence of “hunger amidst plenty” in India took a new turn in mid-2001, as the country’s food stock reached unprecedented levels, while hunger intensified in drought-affected areas and elsewhere. This situation prompted PUCL to approach the Supreme Court of India with a writ petition on the “right to food”. Initially the case was brought against the Government of India, Food Corporation of India, and six state governments, in the specific context of inadequate drought relief. Later, the case was extended to the larger issue of chronic hunger, with all states and union territories as respondents.

The legal basis of the petition is simple. Article 21 of the Constitution guarantees the fundamental "right to life” and imposes upon the state the duty to protect it. The Supreme Court has held in previous cases that the right to life includes the right to live with dignity and all that goes along with it, including the right to food. The petition argues that the central and state governments’ response to the drought situation, in terms of both policy and implementation, constitutes a clear violation of this right. The bulk of the petition used government and field-based data from Rajasthan.

Briefly, the petition demanded that the country’s gigantic food stocks should be used without delay to protect people from hunger and starvation. This petition led to a prolonged public interest litigation (PUCL vs. Union of India and Others Writ Petition [Civil] 196 of 2001). Supreme Court hearings were held at regular intervals, and significant “interim orders” were issued from time to time. However, it soon became clear that the legal process would not go far on its own. This motivated the effort to build a large campaign on the right to food.

In interim orders dated May 8, 2002, and May 2, 2003, respectively, the Supreme Court appointed “commissioners” to monitor the implementation of all orders relating to the right to food case. The Commissioners were empowered to inquire about any violations of these orders and to demand redressal with the full authority of the Supreme Court. The appointment of the Commissioners was an important opportunity for the campaign, even though the Commissioners were an independent structure set up by the Supreme Court. Members of the state right to food networks regularly assisted the Commissioners.


Taking Wrong doers to Court: How Jacqueline Moudeina’s activism led to life imprisonment for the President of Chad

Jacqueline Moudeina, a lawyer and human rights activist in Chad, is known for her work in bringing Hissene Habre to justice for crimes against humanity. Habre was a politician and convicted war criminal who served as the fifth President of Chad from 1982 until he was deposed in 1990. In 1979 when civil war broke out in Chad, Jacqueline quit her studies and fled to Congo with her husband. There she studied law, earning a master’s degree in the subject. She returned to Chad in 1995 after the reign of terror had ended. She registered as a legal intern and by 2004 she was made President of the Chadian Association for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights. During this time, she began gathering evidence of atrocities committed by Habre and his affiliates, who were accused of rape, torture, and killing 40,000 people.

Jacqueline Moudeina filed her first case against Habre on behalf of seven women in 2000, while he was living in Senegal. The judge initially indicted him for complicity in the acts of torture and barbarity, but a year later threw out the case saying it was out of Senegalese jurisdiction. Jacqueline worked tirelessly to bring Habre to Belgium, where the law says that any person who committed acts of torture anywhere in the world could be tried. After five years of deliberations, a judge in Belgium charged Habre with war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. An international arrest warrant was issued, and extradition from Senegal was requested. He was arrested and detained for 10 days, but the Senegalese prosecutor declared himself incompetent to follow through with the request. The Senegalese President called the case an African issue and moved to put it before the African Union. In 2005, the African Union asked Senegal to prosecute Habre in the name of Africa, declaring that no African head of state should be tried outside Africa. Eventually, on May 30, 2016, a court in Senegal sentenced him to life imprisonment.

Jacqueline’s activism came with huge sacrifices: much intimidation and an attack on her life, after which she had to spend a year in a hospital. She was awarded the Right Livelihood Award in 2011 for “her tireless efforts at great personal risk to win justice for the victims of the former dictatorship in Chad and to increase awareness and observance of human rights in Africa.” [2]



[1] Right to Food Campaign. n.d.; and Amnesty International Belgique. 2009.

Video on the Right to Food Campaign in India:

[2] Wikipedia. n.d. “Jacqueline Moudeina.”


About the Author:

Sohini Paul has more than two decades of experience in the development sector, during which time she has contributed and supported the work of numerous social change organizations, working on issues of local self-governance, the right to information and land rights. She has worked on capacity building of civil society organizations from grassroots community groups to large networks in many countries around the world. She is working as a facilitator and coach for the Civil Society Academy since 2015.


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