People-Centered Justice is “Our Common Agenda”


By Swati Mehta, Senior Program Officer, Pathfinders for Justice

“What moves us, reasonably enough, is not the realization that the world falls short of being completely just — which few of us expect — but that there are clearly remediable injustices around us which we want to eliminate.”

- The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen 2009 (emphasis added)

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The UN General Assembly has identified 12 key areas of action to be “addressed through reinvigorated multilateralism” and requested the Secretary-General to report back “with recommendations to advance our common agenda” by September 2021. Abiding by international law and ensuring justice is one of the 12 key areas.

It is high time that justice is given its due and is seen not merely as a precondition for achieving development. A key development goal, which is rightly placed at the center of SDG16, it underpins much of the 2030 Agenda. Justice is fundamentally about fairness in our societies and economies. Whether it be relations between nation states or between people and the state, injustice — especially remediable injustice — strikes at the heart of trust and social contract. At the recently concluded High Level Political Forum 2021, the key message from countries across the globe was consistent: inequality and injustice in various forms are key challenges undermining our ability to achieve the SDGs and a sustainable recovery.

The Justice for All report shows that 5.1 billion people have no meaningful access to justice. The pandemic — and our response to it — has only exacerbated this. We are seeing increased injustices at different levels — international, national, and sub-national! They range from overreach of state powers impinging on fundamental human rights to inequitable access to vaccines, health care, social protection measures, and the digital world. These injustices have played an important role in bringing us to this juncture: overwhelmed nation states; scared people filled with mistrust; and a stunned global community rethinking the ways in which we engage with each other. Add to this increased conflict in contexts like Myanmar and now Afghanistan, and we seem to be sliding back on the goal set by the world leaders under SDG 16 to provide equal access to justice for all by 2030.

The Justice for All report shows how to do this by proposing a simple yet radical approach. Countries interested in ensuring access to justice for all and achieving the promise of SDG16 must:

  • Put people and their needs at the center of justice systems;
  • Prevent and resolve justice problems;
  • Move from the current model of justice for a few to justice for all.

On a positive note, many UN member states and justice leaders are increasingly recognizing people-centered justice as a critical element of development and an essential tool to prevent conflict and strengthen the social contract:

Pathfinders’ recent briefing underscores the importance of leveraging the justice sector to strengthen the social contract. The UN Secretary-General has himself noted that the common underlying feeling behind the two recent global social movements — the “Me Too” campaign and the protests against racism — is the overwhelming sense of injustice or unfairness in failing to prevent or resolve problems that are clearly solvable. The raging debate on vaccine equity and the value of multilateralism also highlights this.

The writing is on the wall: without people-centered justice, there is no sustainable peace, development or recovery! In thinking about how we want to live, engage, and develop together — as people, communities and nation states — justice must get the attention it deserves.

As the UN Secretary-General prepares to share his vision for a multilateral system, which is better equipped to respond to current and future challenges, people-centered justice should be a central tenet: a guiding beacon that shows us the way to “advance our common agenda”.