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CHRAJ boss calls for removal of colonial laws targeting vagrants

The Commissioner for Commission for Human Rights And Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), Joseph Whittal have lamented over existing colonial laws in Ghana’s 1992 constitution targeting the poor.

According to him, it is disappointing to still have such laws presently and called on stakeholders to expedite actions on their removal.

Mr. Joseph Whittal was speaking to journalists during a courtesy call to his office by a human rights-based NGO, Crime Check Foundation.

The visit forms part of the CCF and Open Soceity Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA’s) project, Decriminalizing Vagrancy Laws And Advocacy (DVLA). It aims at educating vagrants on their basic rights and responsibilities and ultimately calling for reforms in national laws targeting petty offenders.

“For us to be sitting here in 2021, talking about 1960 offences that have to criminalize poverty and low social status in a democracy which has the key principles of the constitution, the preservation, and respect for human rights is shocking,” he said.

CHRAJ said even though past and present Attorney Generals have shown interest in the removal of those laws, it is important advocacy groups like CCF don’t relent on their efforts until the right thing is done.”Previous Attorney Generals that we have dealt with have all seen the need to have those laws properly removed from the statutory book but it is important that we keep the pressure coming,” the Commissioner of CHRAJ said on Wednesday, August 11, 2021.

The continued imprisonments of petty offenders due to their status is a violation of a ruling by the African Court on Human and People’s Rights’ on vagrancy laws on 4th December 2020 which stipulates that imprisonment of vagrants constitutes an abuse of their rights.

While commenting on this ruling, Mr. Whittal reiterated that “the African Commission which CHRAJ is a member of makes sure that all Human rights institutions in Africa ensure that the policy of decriminalizing vagrancy laws is dealt with through either repels of actual offences or administrative offences such as bye-laws and replaced with appropriate sanctions.”

“We should also be able to sanction bad behaviour but criminalizing poverty status throwing the person into prison he’s not able to pay,” he added.

A vagrant is a person who is homeless with no regular work thereby moving from one place to the other. They usually make a living from begging or hawking on the streets.

The CHRAJ Commissioner is however, optimistic that even though there have been serious delays in getting a human rights- based laws for vagrants, the current Attorney General, Godfred Dame is working as fast as possible to have them replaced with appropriate sanctions.

“We have actually impressed on the Attorney General the need to mark out those offences that if you look at their genesis are actually emanating from our colonial past…”

While detailing the background of these vagrancy laws, the legal practitioner said they were used by the colonial masters to drive away offenders.

“…where the colonial masters felt that they would keep people of certain nature from the cities and so if you are loitering around you are a threat to their peace and comfort and that was the essence of it,” Commissioner Whittal explained.

Joseph Whittal indicated that what African countries and for that matter Ghana failed to do was to change the laws to suit their social and economic status after gaining sovereignty.

“What has eluded us is why since countries like Ghana became independent we have kept allowing such type of legislation to remain in our statutory books, that is where the problem is,” he added.

Meanwhile, the Executive Director of the CCF, Ibrahim Oppong Kwarteng in an interview disclosed that the project was birthed due to the draconian District Assemblies’ bye-laws, that usually bite poor people harder by sending them to Ghana’s inhumane prisons.
Sensitisation In 12 Districts

So far, the Crime Check Foundation has toured 12 municipalities in three regions, Greater Accra, Ashanti and Central regions to sensitise the vagrants.

The beneficiary municipalities of the DVLA sensitization projects are; Accra Metropolitan, La Nkwantanang Madina, Ashaiman, Weija Gbawe, Awutu Senya, and Awutu Senya East Municipal Assemblies.

The rest are Asokore Mampong, Suame, Kwadaso, Ejusu, Mfanteman, and Effutu Municipal Assemblies.

Besides, all the beneficiary assemblies have agreed that the enactment of a community service law will go a long way to help them particularly in cutting down their budgets on waste management as these petty offenders can help in cleaning the environment.
Some Municipal Chief Executives lamented that they’re willing to do this but the absence of a law to back it is a major setback as they cannot act outside the mother laws which have nothing on non-custodial sentencing.

Meanwhile, the CCF and OSIWA through the project will engage other justice sector institutions including, the Ghana Prisons Service, Ghana Police Service,the Judiciary and office of the Attorney General.
Monitoring and Evaluation

To monitor the progress and effectiveness of the Decriminalizing Vagrancy Laws and Advocacy project, a contact has been created to address the concerns of vagrants at the partnering organization, Crime Check Foundation.

The project which started in May 2021, will end in May 2022.

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