Justice for All and the Social Contract in Peril


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The social and political dislocations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic threaten to break the social contract between states, communities, and people. Actions taken now — or a failure to make needed reforms — can have consequences that will be felt for decades.

Justice is a critical sector in the relationship between states and people. Too often, justice systems have been responsible for fueling distrust and weakening this relationship.

If justice actors are to play a central role in the recovery from the pandemic, helping their societies to rebuild in a fair, inclusive and sustainable way, people-centered justice is needed more than ever.

The justice team at Pathfinders, together with more than 30 partners from around the world, today publishes its third and final briefing on Justice in a Pandemic, a series examining the role of justice sectors in responding to the COVID-19 crisis.

Following briefings on Justice for All and the Public Health Emergency and Justice for All and the Economic Crisis, this latest briefing — Justice for All and the Social Contract in Perilfocuses on the role of justice in combating the negative social impacts of the pandemic.

Justice and Strengthening the Social Contract

Many of the largest protest movements in recent years have had a call for greater justice at their heart. People around the world are calling for social justice, racial justice, gender justice, climate justice, economic justice, and an end to violence and corruption.

Justice sectors can help strengthen the social contract, by resolving people’s most serious problems and increasing trust in institutions by treating everyone fairly and equally. But they can also weaken it, when they fail to curb the abuses that increase public resentment of the authorities, or when they themselves perpetrate abuses, entrench inequalities, and fail to deliver the justice services people need.

The briefing sets out five ways in which formal and informal justice actors can play their part in restoring the social contract and increasing societies’ ability to withstand and recover from this and future crises:

  1. Understand Grievances
    Protests, unrest, and violence do not appear out of thin air; they are foreseeable if one knows where to look. Justice actors can help prevent tensions in society if they work to understand people’s grievances by listening more closely to communities.
  2. Do No Harm
    Abuses by justice actors are among the most effective ways to destroy the social contract. They are associated with higher risk of conflict and increased intensity of conflicts, and are an important driver of violent extremism. Justice systems can demonstrate commitment to reform by bringing abusers to justice, tackling systemic problems of racial and gender discrimination in and by justice institutions, and reforming confrontational justice procedures and legal processes that contribute to the escalation of conflicts.
  3. Resolve Disputes and Address Grievances
    Peacefully resolving disputes and conflicts is the purpose of any justice system and justice leaders should ensure that they make good on that objective. The justice sector can resolve and prevent the disputes that foster grievances by taking justice services closer to those who most need them, using technology to more effectively resolve disputes, and engaging multiple sectors in de-escalating grievances.
  4. Tackle Structural Injustices
    Justice actors have a key role to play in addressing structural injustices, both by reforming their own practices and by empowering people and communities to correct long-term inequities that marginalize large swathes of society. The justice sector can invest in rigorous, people-centered data collection, reach out to groups that have hitherto been neglected or excluded, and work with other sectors to ensure greater access by marginalized communities to justice and other public services.
  5. Accelerate Recovery
    The justice sector’s role goes beyond firefighting. Justice actors can provide a platform for economic and social renewal as societies emerge from the pandemic. They should provide more people with gateway rights such as legal identity and land tenure, reduce harassment of informal sector businesses and find ways to regulate the sector fairly, and tackle the corruption that can be fatal to the social contract and undermine progress in other areas.
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The Justice Vaccine?

If they are to become part of the cure rather than the disease, justice systems will need more and smarter investment, with a sharper focus on preventing injustice and on mechanisms that reduce repression and confrontation. Working across sectors and across borders, justice institutions can contribute to holistic services that address the root causes of grievances while giving people the tools and knowledge to resolve their problems.

Justice is a make-or-break sector when it comes to the social contract. Justice systems have the potential to inoculate societies against violence and conflict, but only if they attend equitably to the needs of all people and communities.

For too long, justice systems have been mechanisms to increase exclusion, discriminating against those who are outside the mainstream of society and entrenching their poverty, insecurity, and resentment. In the wake of the pandemic, it is more urgent than ever that they reverse course and ensure justice for all.

Read the full briefing here: https://www.justice.sdg16.plus/justice-in-a-pandemic

The briefings’ lead authors are David Steven, Maaike de Langen, Sam Muller and Mark Weston. Inputs and contributions were received from over 30 colleagues from around the world.