“What happens to a dream deferred?” asked Langston Hughes in his 1951 poem, published on the cusp of the burgeoning US civil rights movement. When stark inequality leads to lack of opportunity, justice should create a bridge to inclusion. But as the pandemic rages on, it has greatly deepened inequalities and exposed them at the root. While justice systems continue to only work for the few, the dream of equality, prosperity, and even peace becomes, “a heavy load,” to bear and a daily nightmare, inevitably festering until it “explodes,” as Hughes predicted, into unrest and even conflict. “No justice, no peace,” indeed.
This year at PeaceCon2020, the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies and Overseas Development Institute (ODI), brought together a distinguished panel of experts to discuss how people-centered justice can help us meet this moment, distinguished by growing protests against racial inequality, government corruption, and deepening frustrations about justice systems’ failure to achieve fair outcomes for everyone amidst the global pandemic. The panel consisted of Rodrigo Uprimny Yepes Researcher and Director of Drug Policy at Dejusticia, Liv Tørres, Director of the Pathfinders, Florence Simbiri-Jaoko, Kenyan lawyer and Lecturer at University of Nairobi, Martin Rupiya, Training & Innovations Manager at ACCORD, and moderator, Sara Pantuliano, Chief Executive of ODI.
The panel discussed the linkages between justice and peacebuilding. Panelists pointed to the critical importance of examining how pivoting justice systems and services to the needs of people amidst increasing civil unrest around the world, could address fundamental issues with these systems and simultaneously reduce inequality and injustices that contribute to conflict and violence. In many cases, Florence Simbiri-Jaoko asserted, justice systems themselves are often the main drivers of inequality and injustice. In her home country of Kenya, the formal justice system has always been distant from the people who need it most, particularly those in urban slums, where protests have risen this year. When people face acute justice problems sparked by the pandemic — such as housing, employment or domestic violence — they are unable to access avenues to address these issues within the justice system and, consequently, feel alienated by it. This is where informal justice actors come in and play an important role in closing the justice gap.
Martin Rupiya echoed these observations. In South Africa, public safety measures taken in response to the pandemic have led to rising tensions between ordinary citizens and the military, which was used to enforce a lockdown and other quarantine orders after a state of emergency was declared. This caused clashes between communities and law enforcement, especially in black communities which experience frequent abuse at the hands of the police. However, when communities tried to address police brutality via the legal system, the military escaped justice. Unfortunately, as Liv Tørres pointed out, this is not a unique story. We have seen this scenario play out many times over the course of the pandemic in exclusionary institutions across the globe, as societies are forced to reckon with systemic inequalities and the ongoing legacy of colonialism. From civil rights movements throughout history to the current Black Lives Matter movement, which has reverberated across the globe, we know that growing inequality combined with massive justice problems and unequal access to justice — based on race, social status and/or religion — can easily explode and lead to unrest and violent clashes with law enforcement.
At this juncture, it is imperative to transform justice systems and put people and their justice problems at their center. Rodrigo Uprimny Yepes commented that putting people-centered mechanisms into practice is challenging in Colombia. The pandemic has once again exposed the discrepancy of law on the books and law in practice when it comes to preventing discrimination. Dejusticia has filed a tutela (court case) which demands socio-economic security for all during the pandemic.
Paving the way forward with people-centered justice for all
Closing the justice gap and delivering justice for all requires a fresh vision, a transformation in ambition, and strategies that take the scale of the problem seriously. This involves shifting the focus to people-centered justice solutions which leave no one behind (Justice for All report). We need to provide meaningful justice services that allow and empower people to stand up for their rights, and that challenge structural inequalities and exclusion.
While the pandemic brings challenges unmatched by recent history, rising protests and unrest around the world pose a unique opportunity to unequivocally understand people’s needs as they — quite literally — shout them from the street. In order to use people-centered justice to meet the demands of the moment, our speakers made a few suggestions:
- Martin Rupiya encouraged dialogue between public actors and communities. This would allow people and communities — especially those who are the most marginalized — to directly address their grievances. Broad dialogue can capture problems and ensure that the most vulnerable do not to fall through the cracks. It would also include exploring opportunities for community-based policing and other systems that enable justice actors to meet people’s needs.
- Rodrigo Uprimny Yepes commented on the fact that the pandemic has clearly affected the justice sector’s ability to operate, and that social mobilization has become more difficult as a result of lockdown measures. Therefore, we must find opportunities where they exist to meet people’s justice needs. Depending on the sector, using all available tools to adapt, innovate, and meet the gaps that exist is critical.
- Florence Simbiri-Jaoko emphasized the key role of informal justice sector, which is important because it provides a sense of ownership and connection to justice processes for many communities. Furthermore, because of their relationships with communities and others in the justice sector, informal justice actors are in a unique position. They should use that position to make the case that human rights issues are strongly interconnected and mobilize communities and other justice sector actors to advance that argument.
- Liv Tørres asserted the need for politicians and justice leaders themselves to spearhead justice transformations. They should take responsibility to ensure that there are policies in place to stop corruption and discrimination. “Seeing as we are in this together, it’s up to all of us to share the responsibility in reexamining and improving social contracts,” she said.
“We can’t go back to normal because normal was the problem,” Sara Pantuliano concluded. The pandemic has reinforced patterns of exclusion and impunity, worsened conflicts and crime, and reduced civic space amidst COVID measures — making it even more difficult to achieve inclusion, justice, and peace. Despite these setbacks, this is a moment to reflect on systems that are the source of anger, frustration, and exhaustion for those who experience inequality and injustice most keenly. This is an opportunity to influence and push the agenda forward on closing the global justice gap. We must galvanize this moment to demand change that delivers people-centered justice for all.
Watch a full recording of this panel discussion, here.