South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Speaking at the World Justice Forum, Hina Jilani champions civil society actors as filling the gaps in providing access to justice. But warns they need financial support, and recognition from the legal system.

Good afternoon.

It is a pleasure and a privilege to be with you here today for the launch of this landmark report on justice to which I have had the privilege to contribute as a co-chair of the Task Force.

The Elders – a group of global leaders brought together by Nelson Mandela – launched an access to justice programme in February, adding our voice and leadership to stand alongside those who pioneer access to justice both at the global and local levels. 

My colleague Dr Schwartz has alluded to the multiplicity of possible actors in a justice system. These include not only formal justice services but also civil society, the private sector, international donors, community elders, religious leaders and others. Internationally, nationally and locally, there is a panoply of people and organizations involved in some way in providing justice.

Quite often, however, these actors work completely independently of each other, with little knowledge of what others are doing and therefore without a cohesive strategy for delivering what matters most to people. It is no easy task to bring all these actors together into a focused and coherent effort to target and solve the problems that matter most to people. 

One non-traditional provider that I believe has been underappreciated as a partner in delivering justice goals is the civil society. The Elders have a strong belief in engaging with and enlisting the support of civil society in expanding access to justice, and the Task Force report underlines the importance of this.

Citizens cannot always navigate complex legal systems by themselves, and they can’t always afford lawyers to help them navigate.

Civil society actors as advocacy groups or as community support groups such as paralegals, help fill that gap. They advise citizens where they can access support and help them to find timely, practical solutions to their problems that don’t require them to fall into debt or into poverty traps. 

Civil society also has a role in drawing attention to the structural injustices that damage entire communities, and is a powerful source of advocacy in holding governments and businesses to account for injustice.

My experiences as a human rights lawyer providing assistance to people for a range of difficulties they confront in realizing their rights through the justice system compel me to call attention to some areas that have received less attention in discussions on SDG 16, but remain central to people’s grievances in my part of the world. 

It is in people’s struggle to acquire the right to a safe environment, to control over their own natural resources, and to labour practices free of exploitation, that the justice gaps become ever so visible.

Labour tribunals have given little attention to the freedom of association and unionization, or to ensuring fair wages; land tenancy laws still lack sufficient safeguards and mechanisms of redress against eviction of the landless peasants, who till the land; and mechanisms for safeguarding the right of people to control or retain an equitable share in their natural resources are non-existent or dysfunctional. These are some of the structural injustices in many parts of the world that the Task Force reports highlights for our attention. 

It is civil society actors be they social activists, human rights defenders or journalists who bring issues to the forefront and indicate the areas in which action is most needed by governments.

For civil society to fulfill its potential, it needs recognition by the legal system as well. It needs financial support through mechanisms such as legal aid, while at the same time preserving its independence from state interference. And its members need physical protection from the powerful interests they oppose. 

I often refer to the example of Indonesia, which has been a pioneer in this area. The country’s national legal aid law, adopted in 2011, recognizes the central role of paralegals and legal aid offices in providing justice, and also provides public funding to build the capacity of civil society organizations. Indonesia now has up to 6,000 grassroots justice defenders working to empower local communities.

The Task Force Report emphasizes and illustrates with examples from different countries how impactful investment in justice can be. The Elders also believe strongly that investment in access to justice should be evidence-based.

We, therefore, need data to tell us where people’s justice problems lie, so that efforts can be targeted at the most important problems and tailored to those groups that are most in need.

The World Justice Project’s estimate of the global justice gap is an excellent example of this, and one that should be built on and repeated as we move towards 2030.

I appeal to governments around the world to take action to support civil society and to maximize its potential to deliver justice to all those who need it. 
Hina Jilani – Elder


Updated On: Tuesday, 30 April, 2019