*“The most advanced justice system in the world is a failure if it does not provide justice to the people it is meant to serve. Access to justice is therefore critical.”
-Rt. Hon. Beverly McLachlin, P.C., Chief Justice of Canada 2007
In 2015, Member States of the United Nations agreed to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It is a commitment by countries to work towards the attainment of the SDGs by 2030. One particular goal, Goal 16, commits countries to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.” Out of the ten targets within SDG 16, target 16.3 specifically calls for governments to “promote the rule of law at the national and international levels and ensure equal justice for all.” And for the first time, this SDG is on the spotlight for the Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs).
About two months ago, on 27 – 29 March 2019, the African Centre of Excellence for Access to Justice (ACE-AJ) and the Dullah Omar Institute for Constitutional Law, Governance and Human Rights hosted the “Africa and Asia Civil Society Workshop on the United Nations High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS) and Access to Justice / SDG Goal 16” at the Protea Hotel Parktonian in Johannesburg, South Africa. The event was made possible with help from the Open Society Justice Initiative, Ford Foundation, Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, an the University of Western Cape. Around 30 representatives from civil society, government, and the academe, coming from across Asia and Africa attended the three day workshop to share experiences in the realization of SDG 16 or access to justice, in light of each country’s VNR, in preparation for the HLPF in July this year.
The participants were welcomed by representatives from the host organizations on the first day of the workshop. We heard from respected personalities, who discussed the importance of access to justice and the challenges that came with it, namely, Deputy Minister of Justice John Jeffery, Judge President Dunstan Mlambo from the Gauteng Division of the High Court of South Africa, and Justice Zione Ntaba, Judge of the High Court of Malawi. In order to better prepare for the HLPF, we learned different ways of engaging with the HLPF. The afternoon of the first day served as a platform for counterparts from the Asian region to share experiences on the VNR processes and findings. More importantly, it was an opportunity to find and explore strategies to make VNRs reflective of the realities on the ground.
After a recap of the previous day’s events, we heard more about legal aid and social justice in South Africa from notable speakers, Professor David McQuid-Mason, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Advocate Brian Nair, Legal Aid South Africa, and Minister in the Presidency Hon. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. It was highlighted that the achievement of SDG 16 is not possible without recognizing the interrelatedness of all the other SDGs. These remarks were a clever segue into the world café, where the representatives from Africa were able to share their experiences on the VNR processes and findings. Much like on the first day, the session also served as an avenue to gather insights and strategies to make the VNR process more inclusive. The sessions were tied together by reflecting on the synergies between the African and Asian regions.
The workshop concluded with discussions on practical ways to be involved and represented in the HLPF through advocacy and mobilization, partnerships between government and civil society, research and documentation, and communication and social media.
The workshop opened opportunities for us to learn from other countries’ experiences and to harvest practical ways forward that we can bring home. Beyond that, the break-out sessions played a role in the coming together of counterparts to reaffirm the importance of true access to justice for all and meaningful participation in the VNR process. The experiences shared tell us that in order to truly achieve target 16.3, governments need to shift its idea of justice from a formal, service-centered point of view to a more user-centered perspective, realizing that the most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups often do not attain justice. Movement towards an inclusive justice system, which includes empowering paralegals and civil society counterparts, must be given priority.
We learned from the experiences of Africa that Asia is not alone. Both regions have struggles on the VNR front and on access to justice in general. The lack of meaningful cooperation, or even the willingness to do so, between governments and civil society, some to the point of shrinking civic space, poses a threat to the accuracy of the information reflected in the country’s report. This trickles down to another, even greater, problem: energy spent on making sure the report is truthful is energy taken away from ensuring that the targets on justice are actually met.
Despite the struggles, we take inspiration from other countries in Asia where partnerships between government and civil society are functioning. A positive working relationship between the two translates into policies that reduce corruption, encourage good governance and openness of information, with the end goal of addressing access to justice issues. It may seem like a long way for other countries whose political situation is making it difficult to create a relationship with government, but the success stories of neighboring countries and the synergies with the African region encourage us to believe that a better future is coming. In the meantime, we continue to work towards ensuring that the rights of the defenseless and the oppressed are safeguarded.