UN member states debate Our Common Agenda

People-centered justice is key to building trust


General Assembly Holds Consultation on Report of Secretary-General on “Our Common Agenda” (UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)

Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, in Our Common Agenda, sets out an agenda for action designed to strengthen and accelerate the 2030 Agenda. His analysis states that building trust is our defining challenge and that there is a growing disconnect between people and the institutions that serve them.

UN member states are currently debating the proposals by the Secretary-General, in a series of thematic consultations convened by the President of the General Assembly. On 15 February, discussions focused on building trust and ensuring rule of law, and financing for sustainable development.

Putting people at the center of justice

A small number of experts from around the world were invited to speak as part of these consultations. Among them Sara Hossain, of the Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST) and a member of the Pathfinders’ Task Force on Justice and Sam Muller CEO and Founder of HiiL.

The Secretary-General notes in Our Common Agenda that justice systems only deliver for the few. Sam Muller stated in his remarks that justice systems are part of the problem. He reminded the delegations that 5.1 billion people lack meaningful access to justice and that 1.5 billion of them face unresolved civil, administrative or crime-related problems.

Sam Muller

He went on to emphasize that justice systems are also part of the solution — as critical drivers of trust. If they deliver, justice systems are where conflicts are resolved, rights can be invoked, frustrations can be channeled, and violence can be prevented. This strengthens trust. Between people — because conflicts get resolved and it is known that the rules apply to everyone. And in institutions — because they deliver a critical public good to society: justice and fairness.

Sara Hossain emphasized that being able to access justice, to stand up for your rights, to be included in society, to have a voice, are all critical to development for people, for communities and for society. She said that far too many people, in particular women and girls, still face violence which impacts their lives and too many workers do not have decent working conditions. Those in the informal sector have no possibility to exercise their rights. Too many people are simply unable to access the public services that they are entitled to.

A new vision of rule of law that puts people at the center

In Our Common Agenda, the Secretary-General speaks of a new vision of the rule of law that puts people at the center. Both experts welcomed this and Sara called on the UN and its member states to work together to make the rule of law a reality for everyone, and to make good on the promise of equal access to justice for all. Sam emphasized that the new people-centered vision should be inclusive, concrete, and practical. With only one focus: delivery.

Sara reminded delegations of the international agenda for the realization of the access to justice for all set out in the Justice for All report. She also proposed measures to build on the experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic and how it transformed the way our justice systems operate. The pandemic has forced us to think critically about priorities and what actually works — in particular the importance of frontline justice defenders — in terms of reaching people who need protection, support, and access to services the most.

Sarah Hussein

Sam presented four components of people-centered justice, urging member states to massively scale up their investments.

  • First, to help countries build the capacity to regularly collect and share data about people’s justice problems and experiences. Countries like Argentina, Canada, Niger, and others are already collecting such people-centered justice data.
  • Second, to build the capacity of justice professionals to work evidence-based. This is also being done, for example, in Uganda.
  • Third, innovation that gets the justice interventions that work best to as many people as possible, as efficiently as possible. This is about delivery; think of local justice centers, user-friendly contracts, and platforms to help people claim access to public services.
  • And fourth, creating an enabling environment for people-centered justice services. Over the past two years, thanks to the SDG vision of justice for all, more justice leaders than ever have come together to work on this, including in the Justice Action Coalition.

Making it happen

“What we need is not rocket science,” said Sam. Its core components are known, and we know it is a good investment. We need leadership from member states to deliver people-centered justice. This is the way for the Secretary-General to deliver on a new vision for the rule of law with people at its heart. The way to tackle corruption and other injustices and deliver tangible improvements in people’s lives. The way to sustain peace, build trust, and strengthen economies. Leaving no-one behind.

Sara advised member states to face the realities of how justice systems currently work, to acknowledge the mismatch between what people need and want when they seek justice, and how justice systems operate in practice. She mentioned the efforts of the Justice Action Coalition, a high-ambition coalition of countries coming together around the agenda for action set out by the Task Force on Justice.

Sara closed by saying: “We need to put people at the center of justice. We need a new vision for the rule of law that strengthens the bonds that hold our societies together, allows us to resolve differences, claim our rights and participate within our societies. She highlighted the need for the legal profession to be more open, inclusive, and innovative, and to work alongside others — human rights defenders, paralegals, and community justice advocates. She also urged member states to learn from local initiatives, to build real learning that is based on experience and understanding of what works in different contexts, pioneered by people on the ground.

The new vision for the rule of law, building on SDG16

The representative from the Netherlands welcomed how Our Common Agenda highlights that equal access to justice for all is needed to rebuild trust between citizens and the institutions that serve them, and noted how it is also an important tool for prevention.

The moderator, Elizabeth Cousens, summarized the debate, noting that accelerating the SDGs is urgent and past due. She stated that the moral center of the SDGs to leave no one behind must be at the heart of our resolve in very practical and concrete ways. And that clearly means that issues of inequality, of fairness have to be tackled with honesty and with our highest level of ambition.

Volker Türk

Volker Türk, the Under-Secretary-General for Policy in the Executive Office of the Secretary-General, and in charge of follow-up to Our Common Agenda, gave closing remarks. He emphasized that the rule of law permeates all the SDGs, and that rule of law systems and governance systems need to place people at the center, address corruption, and make sure that justice is delivered.

The purpose of the UN’s new vision for the rule of law and access to justice will be to act as a force multiplier, which combines ongoing actions by the UN system and builds on existing frameworks and coordination arrangements. It should ensure that the whole UN system is working on SDG 16 implementation.

All in all, this session contained a powerful reinforcement for the UN itself and for the member states that support to the Rule of Law needs to be connected to the promise of universal access to justice enshrined in SDG16. And that people-centered justice is a key to restoring trust.

What’s next?

For those working for justice for all, it is critical to engage with the UN to push for and help shape its new people-centered vision for the rule of law, speed-up the promised review of its Rule of Law assistance and promote practical steps to develop a more unified voice and approach, grounded in SDG16.

We must also use the nearly 600 days to the second SDG summit to get a group of countries to commit to implementing people-centered justice at greater scale, both members of the Justice Action Coalition and beyond, and covering both domestic and international investments.

Lastly — not covered so much in this session, but critical to Our Common Agenda overall — is the work with younger people to mobilize for people-centered justice, through the Young Justice Leaders and other initiatives, so that calls for gender justice, racial justice, and climate justice power innovations in the justice sector and contribute to more just and inclusive societies.