On the Cusp of an International Justice Revolution: Transforming a Vision into Reality

This article by Maaike de Langen and Akingbolahan Adeniran introduces the Justice Action Coalition, a network of countries and partners working at the international level to close the global justice gap, ensure equal access to justice for all, and demonstrate ambitious leadership on national priorities for people-centred justice, in line with the United Nation’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development 

At the heart of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development lies a vision of a just, equitable, tolerant, open and socially inclusive world, in which the needs of the most vulnerable are met. Despite the adoption of the 2030 Agenda by all UN member States in 2015, this vision, though desirable, remains a distant aspiration for many countries. This is not a mere conjecture, but a factual statement based on several surveys, including a 2019 Justice for All Report written by the Task Force on Justice, an initiative of the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies – a multi-stakeholder partnership that brings together UN member States, international organisations, civil society, and the private sector to accelerate the delivery of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets for peace, justice and inclusion. The report noted that, at least 253 million people live in extreme conditions of injustice, 1.5 billion people have justice problems they cannot resolve, and 4.5 billion people are excluded from the opportunities the law provides. It also concluded that about 5.1 billion people, lack meaningful access to justice.

Prevalence of Injustice 

While the above estimate is new, it should not come as a surprise to many observers, as they sadly reinforce what most of us see or experience every day. Injustice is observable on the news, in our homes and neighbourhoods, in schools, at the workplace, in public offices, and during periods of conflict or crisis, such as the Covid-19 pandemic. We see it in the way society treats economic and political migrants and vulnerable populations, including women and children, in the actions or inaction of law enforcement and public officials, and in countries where untamed corruption has foisted abject poverty on the majority of the population. As the 2019 Justice for All Report has shown, the justice gap is both a reflection of structural inequalities and a contributor to these inequalities. It is no wonder then that injustice is often seen, in the lead up to conflict and war.

The problem of injustice affects every country, whether in the global north or global south. A few illustrations will suffice to show its global dimension. The Black Lives Matter movement began in 2013 with the acquittal of George Zimmerman following the fatal shooting of African-American teen, Trayvon Martin. Similarly, the Me Too movement gained prominence in 2017, after reports of numerous episodes of sexual abuse by American film producer, Harvey Weinstein, began to surface. The Arab Spring movement started in Tunisia in late 2010, after a street vendor publicly burned himself to death in protest against his treatment by local officials. Nigeria’s End SARS movement was re-ignited in 2020, after a video of a police officer shooting a young Nigerian in Lagos trended. The common thread through these movements, is that they were all borne out of widespread or systemic injustice.

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In The Man Died, Nobel laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka posited that, “justice is the first condition for humanity.” He is not alone in holding this view. More recently, the UN’s Common Agenda reaffirmed that, justice is an essential dimension of the social contract. One wonders then, why many countries continue to struggle to provide meaningful access to justice for the vast majority of their populations. According to a new movement for people-centred justice, one of the reasons for this stagnation is an unjustified one-sided approach to rule of law programming and support. The tendency to focus on a top-down approach through near exclusive reliance on traditional justice institutions like the courts, law enforcement agencies and ministries of justice as change agents is unsupported by the evidence, and has largely been ineffective. So, where do we go from here? How does one turn the justice vision in the 2030 Agenda into reality?

Turning the Justice Agenda into Reality

There is a growing realisation that without people-centred justice, the promise of the 2030 Agenda to eradicate poverty in all its forms, tackle inequality, promote shared prosperity, and protect the planet from degradation will remain illusory. People-centred justice, means putting people at the centre of justice systems to deliver fair, inclusive, relevant and timely solutions to their justice problems, which leads to fair outcomes and respect for human rights. In a nutshell, people-centred justice initiatives will often involve partnerships with individuals and entities beyond government and the justice sector, rely on bottom-up and top-down change management methods, involve a broad view of stakeholders at the design and implementation phases of a justice initiative, include strategies to prevent justice problems, proactively protect human rights, and rely on data as an empirical basis for action.

The Justice Action Coalition 

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Recognising that the people-centred justice approach is the most effective way of ensuring equal access to justice for all, in 2021, a group of countries and organisational partners founded the Justice Action Coalition, a multi-stakeholder, high ambition coalition, to champion the cause. The Coalition is a network of countries and partners working at the international level to close the global justice gap, ensure equal access to justice for all, and demonstrate ambitious leadership on national priorities for people-centred justice. In late 2022, the Coalition constituted a task team, comprising the authors of this article, to develop proposals or recommendations on its operationalisation. With these efforts to operationalise the Coalition reaching an advanced phase, there is a palpable feeling that the justice agenda is finally being given a new lease on life.

The expectations are high among practitioners in the field, and rightly so. The Coalition will soon begin to promote learning and exchange among countries, facilitate the coordination of justice data and evidence, promote coherence of international assistance, and facilitate the catalytic funding of people-centred justice initiatives. This is the first time a high ambition coalition will assume such a role at the international level, in the justice sector. It is expected to champion countries that make the pivot to people-centred justice to deepen impact and accelerate the attainment of SDG16. For a more detailed discussion on the Justice Action Coalition, including an elucidation of the ingredients it is expected to deploy as a high ambition coalition to achieve its mandate, and recommendations on how it can deepen engagement on each ingredient, please see our recently published co-authored paper titled, “From Justice for the Few to Justice for All – A model for high ambition action to deliver the SDGs.” A copy can be obtained from the UN Foundation website.

Maaike de Langen works for people-centred justice, hopeful multilateralism, and everything ombuds. She co-drafted the 2019 Justice for All report, directed the Pathfinders for Justice Program, and now leads the Justice Action Coalition Task Team. She is a Senior Fellow at NYU-CIC and worked for the Dutch National Ombudsman, UNDP, and the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Akingbolahan Adeniran, a Partner in Awodi & Co. (Legal Consultants), is a former State Attorney -General and national rule of law advisor in Nigeria. He previously worked in several capacities with the UN International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals and the International Criminal Court. He is the other half of the Justice Action Coalition Task Team.

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