Justice as Fairness: Five priorities for action


Justice as fairness needs to be a basic parameter for the reset in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, if we want our societies to be more fair and inclusive.

That was the key insight that I took from the discussion between Musa Dean, the justice minister of Liberia, Sigrid Kaag, the minister for foreign trade and development cooperation of the Netherlands, and the World Bank’s Ferid Belhaj. The discussion also yielded five courses of action to get us there.

The discussion on Investing in Justice for All to Prevent Violence and Conflict, was held as part of the World Bank’s annual Fragility Forum. It was organized by the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies and the g7+ and moderated by Pathfinders director Liv Tørres.

The panelists considered how justice can be part of the effort to build back better in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. In this blog, I summarize some of the key ideas discussed.

A toxic mix: a pandemic, an economic crisis and systemic injustice

The pandemic has increased risks to social and economic stability around the world. Sigrid Kaag described today’s environment as “a toxic mix”. Amidst COVID-19, she said, people everywhere are facing economic hardship and justice systems are not responding to people’s needs. Most countries are primarily focused on dealing with the health consequences of COVID-19. The pandemic has deepened inequalities in both developed and developing countries, weakening people’s access to justice and their ability to stand up for their rights. The primary fear of justice leaders, interviewed in a recent survey by HiiL, is that the current crisis and the failure to address it could lead to the emergence of new pockets or sources of violence.

Musa Dean reported how sexual and gender-based violence are already increasing in Liberia, while the closure of courts has led to potentially dangerous overcrowding in prisons. Simultaneously, “the percentage of the population living below the poverty line is projected to increase from 55% to 68% by the end of 2020.” Ferid Belhaj compared the situation to the Arab Spring uprising, where, as now, young people had been faced for years with justice systems that were, “not a tool for fairness,” and where their economic opportunities had been unfairly snuffed out. This absence of fairness eventually led to people to take to the streets starting a wave of demonstrations that spread throughout the region.

Justice, trust and the social contract

The speakers on the panel emphasized the importance of justice in rebuilding societies after the pandemic. The inevitable economic downturn will lead to job losses, evictions, disputes within families, and inheritance issues. As Minister Kaag pointed out, these are not only economic needs but also justice needs. If governments cannot provide justice services to their people, trust in them — already weakened by the virus — will be further reduced, and the risk of instability will increase.

The virus has brought into sharp relief the structural inequalities that favor some groups over others, which has sparked social unrest and violence in a number of countries. As Ferid Belhaj suggested, rebuilding efforts in the wake of the virus are an opportunity to redress these imbalances. Young people in regions such as Africa and the Middle East, he said, have tremendous energy and a desire to fulfil their potential, but for this to happen they need, “a fair chance to accomplish their dreams.”

The panel noted that some people are paying a higher price than others during the pandemic. Women and girls, as well as people working in the informal economy, are suffering the brunt of the virus’s economic impacts. Reducing such vulnerabilities should be a top priority for the rebuilding effort, and in this sense, the pandemic creates opportunities as well as threats. Sigrid Kaag suggested, for example, that the current context can be used to tackle discrimination against women in inheritance disputes. Musa Dean saw similar possibilities for empowering informal workers.

Justice as fairness is key to the social contract between governments and citizens. Minister Kaag warned that, “we speak a lot about the importance of building a social contract, but if we do not invest in it — and that includes investing in a fair and effective justice system — we cannot expect to see increased trust in government and governance systems.”

Ferid Belhaj observed that the social contract is moving from a social dynamic to an economic dynamic, and we need to make sure that young people, with all their energy, can enter the job market and that, “there is a legal and regulatory framework that allows them to enjoy the predictability and fairness of a justice system that is not a monopoly of rent seeking interests.”

Five courses of action for justice as fairness

Five courses of action to promote justice and fairness emerged from the discussion:

  • First, more investment in justice is needed, as part of national recovery plans and international support packages. As a proportion of overseas development assistance, investment in justice is small and declining, even while the need for justice is increasing. “You reap what you sow,” as Minister Kaag argued, “and if you plant very little, you can expect even weaker justice systems.”
  • Second, investment in justice needs to be distributed more equitably, with a much greater share of it targeted at those who have hitherto been left behind. In developing and developed countries alike, unfairness embedded in laws, procedures and institutions needs to be rooted out. “Making fairness part and parcel of how people perceive their justice system working is not costly in terms of financing,” Ferid Belhaj remarked, “but it is politically costly, especially for those who don’t want change.”
  • Third, as Minister Dean advocated, countries should not adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to delivering justice. As much as we need more international collaboration on justice issues, responses need to be based on an understanding of the problems people actually face in a specific context. “There are similarities between countries,” he said, “but specifics must be given credence because, at the end of the day, you want ownership and sustainability to come into play.”
  • Fourth, there was a call to direct investment to a broader range of justice actors, not only towards expensive formal justice systems. Citizens’ advice services, paralegals, ombuds institutes and informal community justice mechanisms can play a vital part in providing cost-effective people-centered services, and are better placed to reach those who have hitherto been denied access to justice.
  • Finally, it was argued that justice should be an integral part of countries’ economic recovery plans. Ferid Belhaj recommended that investment in justice should be part of a “broader prism of investment in economic growth.” If countries are to rebuild their economies in an effective and more equitable fashion, he said, they need justice systems “that provide a level playing field for investors and businesses and that enable them to put their money to work and make a good profit, thereby enlarging the possibility for growth and prosperity.”

Watch the whole discussion here:

This panel was by organized by the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, as part of our Justice for All program.



Maaike de Langen
Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies

Working for people-centered justice and a responsive rule of law, writing and thinking about a better UN, hopeful multilateralism and everything ombuds.