This year’s Asia Pro Bono Conference was held in Hotel Yak & Yeti in Kathmandu, Nepal on 13-15 September 2019. A total of around 600 persons from all over Asia and the globe participated in the three-day conference. The main conference had a mix of plenaries, break-out sessions and workshops. And what an experience it was to hear from resource persons from diverse backgrounds and to learn about pro bono experiences, initiatives and successes.
To open the conference, we were welcomed by the local organizers, Ms. Neetu Pokharel of Alliance for Social Dialogue and Ms. Shashi Adhikary of Nepal Law Campus, and the secretariat of the Asia Pro Bono Conference Consortium, Mr. Bruce A. Lasky of BABSEACLE. The key note address was delivered by Honorable Cholendra Shamsher Junga Bahadur Rana, the Chief Justice of the Nepal Supreme Court. The other distinguished guests who welcomed everyone were Ms. Ayshanie Medagangoda-Labe, Resident Representative of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP); Senior Advocate Chandeshwor Shrestha, President of the Nepal Bar Association; and Honorable Bhanu Bhakta Dhakal, Minister of Law, Justice and Parliamentarian Affairs. We ended the morning formalities with cultural presentations from the students of the Nepal Law Campus and the Kathmandu School of Law.
Before diving into the conference proper, Ms. Hina Jilani from The Elders, facilitated the launch of the Justice for All: Task Force on Justice Report. The Report offered three principles on how we should look at justice, namely: (1) Justice is the heart of sustainable development; (2) People as the center of justice systems; and (3) Move from justice to the few to justice for all. The Report also cited challenges to access to justice and proposed solutions for them.
The break-out sessions were categorized into streams – engage, empower, and sustain. Majority of the sessions fell under the streams engage and sustain, and rightfully so. It was through these sessions, ranging from different topics such as pro bono assistance during post disaster periods to pro bono and its relationship with business and human rights, where we learned about the different faces of pro bono work. These discussions provide insight on where and how pro bono service contribute to bringing justice to those persons and sectors who may not have access to justice in its traditional sense. It was also necessary to discuss matters of sustainability of the pro bono movement by involving other members of society (e.g. government and bar associations), doing strategic litigation, and moving towards a systemic change, among others.
Equally important were the sessions under the empower stream. I personally found myself attending these sessions because these provided insight on the role of the communities themselves. Particularly notable break-out sessions on empowerment were strengthening pro bono through technology and LGBTQI and inclusive pro bono. A resonating message from these empowerment sessions was to bring the law, and consequently justice, closer to the people on the ground.
On that note, it is worth mentioning that prior to and after the main conference, there were various Access to Justice Exchange Workshops. More or less 60 participants attended the Legal Empowerment and Access to Justice sessions at the Yellow Pagoda Hotel on 11 – 12 September 2019. This two-day program was organized by Namati, BABSEACLE, and OSJI. During the plenary, we discussed the current trends of access to justice through the sharing of country experiences, both positive developments and negative aspects, of the participants from South and South East Asia. As it is the year of justice, there was also a session on the Voluntary National Reviews, with particular focus on Goal 16, and a break-out session on thematic issues, such as environmental justice, citizenship and statelessness, and prisoners.
A major component of this exchange is the invaluable input from the participants – from existing and emerging initiatives to promote access to justice and legal empowerment within the SDG 16 framework to coming together to find potential areas of cooperation to accelerate these efforts. One particular area of cooperation is to highlight and recognize the role of paralegals and their roles in achieving meaningful access to justice. As such, the Legal Empowerment Network in South East Asia, at a separate meeting, agreed to consider convening a regional paralegal conference in 2020 as a potential side event to the 9th Asia Pro Bono Conference.
The main conference was closed by dignitaries from UNDP Nepal, the Supreme Court Bar Association, and the Nepal Bar Association, who each delivered their closing remarks, expressing words of encouragement and support in the pro bono movement.
This whole experience had a bittersweet ending for me because the discussions were so rich and insightful but there was not enough time to take them all in. Nevertheless, it all ended on a sweet note when it was announced that next year’s Asia Pro Bono Conference will be held in the Philippines. Smiles and cheers filled the room as the Asia Pro Bono Conference flag was handed over by Nepal to the Philippines.