Enhancing legal empowerment and grassroots justice movement in Asia, 2022

2022 has been a year of connecting, learning, and sharing for our members in Asia. We organized country-specific conversations, strengthened our collective leadership, and built solidarity to advance common advocacy together. These are our key highlights of the year.

In March 2022, we conducted a virtual legal empowerment introduction session in Thai language for the first time, focusing on the local context of Thailand and Laos. The session discussed the concept of legal empowerment and focused on how organizations in these two countries were using legal empowerment approaches to address justice issues. Participants had the opportunity to share experiences and identify potential collaboration areas. With our members from International Rescue Committee (IRC), Asylum Access Thailand (AAT), Law and Development Partnership (LDP), Community Resource Centre (CRC), and International Accountability Project (IAP) leading this conversation, we had a total of 16 organizations who joined us. This is our experimentation to address the regional language barrier, and we chose to focus on Thailand and Laos due to their language similarity which allowed local participants to understand without needing two separate interpretations.

Following this session, we further expanded this initiative to include Burmese in our language interpretation alongside Laos and Thai. In this session conducted on November 25th, we had paralegals from these three countries directly share their legal empowerment experience and the risk they encountered in their local context. Over 50 participants from 20 organizations engaged in the conversation. With the shrinking of civic space, a lot of paralegals were facing increasing risks in conducting grassroots work and amidst this difficulty, participants emphasized the importance of connecting with the community and sharing a positive attitude. These language-inclusive conversations prove to be a valuable space for the engagement of our members, especially grassroots paralegals and it also serves to contextualize discussion and enhance learning at local level.

Our three Southeast Asia (SEA) subgroups also started their separate discussion sessions. With Community Resource Centre (CRC), International Rescue Committee (IRC), and Indonesia Judicial Research Society (IJRS) taking up the convenor responsibility for the Land and Environmental justice subgroup, Citizenship and Refugee subgroup, and Women’s rights subgroup, respectively, three thematic discussions were held between May and early June. The conversation in the Land and Environmental Justice subgroup session highlighted the intersections of land rights issues, environmental protection, and indigenous people’s rights. As for the Citizenship and Refugee rights subgroup, our members specifically explored the current country-level policies and shared insights on how legal empowerment responds to existing issues. Gender justice subgroup discussion focused on mainstreaming gender equality in the judiciary and CSO legal empowerment work, and also shared good organizational practices. The adoption of theme-specific subgrouping has allowed members to deepen their knowledge in the thematic field and talk about their respective issues. This has also diffused leadership and expanded the participation of the network members beyond our SEA core group membership.

Aside from these learning sessions, our members from four countries: Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, and the Philippines, came together to discuss the assessment of SDG 16. Each country designed a study on how this Sustainable Development Goal was translated or achieved either at the country or the community level by relevant stakeholders and government. They particularly looked into the challenges of implementing SDG 16.3 and shared recommendations. The consolidated report highlighted several challenges facing the attainment of the goals of promoting the rule of law and ensuring equal access to justice for all. These include shrinking civic space, weakness in the implementation of existing laws and regulations, lack of available and accessible legal services, and the lack of awareness of the legal framework and how it works. Members offer recommendations on structural reforms, improve the availability and accessibility of legal services, and capacitate citizens and law enforcers on legal frameworks and rights. Myanmar, Cambodia, and Indonesia were also able to conduct SDG 16 localization activities to increase awareness and public interest.

Similarly, members are also maximizing the International Development Research Centre, Canada (IDRC) project for joint learning. It provides an excellent platform for key network members to reflect on their respective programs and strategies, and answer key questions of the Learning Agenda to generate powerful insights on legal empowerment. Our core group members Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI), Asylum Access, and Alternative Law Groups (ALG) are conducting their research at an early stage and will be providing valuable learnings this year, 2023. The Learning Agenda participants convened for the first time in person in March, 2023. Read more about it here.

In October, our Southeast Asia core group convened in the Philippines for the first time to discuss legal empowerment strategies and approaches to collectively tackle the challenges of shrinking civic space and planned regional activities. With the overall goal of mainstreaming legal empowerment work as an essential component for defending and deepening democracy in the region, the group decided that they will focus on expanding the network’s reach and increase engagement in collective advocacy through (1) capacity building activities, especially with community-based organizations and paralegals; (2) peer-learning initiatives within the region and with other regions on different justice issues; and (3) active involvement in policy discussions, including engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). You can read more about the discussion here.

On November 12, 2022, our member, Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI) faced intimidation from a group of non-uniformed officers, who dispersed their internal board and regional officials meeting in Sanur, Bali. It is evident that the reason for this dispersal was linked to the G20 Summit in Bali hosted by the Indonesian government, where 20 of the most powerful countries in the world discussed global health architecture, sustainable energy transition, and digital transformation. This harassment of civil society organizations constituted a direct attack on freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. Together, the Southeast Asia core group issued a statement in solidarity with YLBHI in protecting their right to organize, assemble and express their legitimate dissent on issues that directly impact their communities.

Besides Southeast Asia, we have also started our first South Asia regional conversation virtually on February 9th. Sara Hossain from BLAST, Faustina Pereira from Centre for Peace and Justice Institute at Brac University, and Prof. Srikrishna facilitated this gathering and members shared initial ideas on what they could do together in the region under the areas of Learning, Collective Action, and Community building. As we further identified our priority activities and areas of interest, three thematic subgroups were established focusing on 1) Gender Justice, 2) Children’s rights, and 3) Death penalty and Prisoners’ rights. The first subgroup session was held on September 21st on the topic of Death Penalty and Prisoners’ rights. Madhurima Dhanuka from the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) shared their latest report on pretrial detention, Guilty till proven innocent? and talked about effective safeguards for the rights of pre-trial detainees. Anup Surendranath from the National Law University Delhi shared about Project 39A and how they combined academic research and pro bono legal representation on the ground to shift law. The recording of the session can be found here.

With greater emphasis on grassroots justice and community paralegal work, we hosted three major sessions at the 11th Asia Pro Bono Conference and Access to justice exchange. Together with our members from Asia, Eurasia, and Africa, we have covered topics on 1) access to justice through paralegal pro bono support; 2) legal empowerment and how it ensured communities’ involvement for their own land and environmental rights, and also 3) providing legal services remotely including in times of crisis. You can read more about it and find the recording here. At the end of the year, we organized a roundtable discussion together with the UNDP and Asia Pro Bono Consortium, on the topic of Climate/ Environmental Justice and the role of legal service providers. With over 100 participants including legal empowerment practitioners, we discussed ways in which the legal services providers, especially big law firms, could contribute to environmental justice work. By ensuring that corporations adhere to certain rules, whether mandatory governmental policies or voluntary guidelines, legal service providers can ensure corporate accountability for their activities and respect for community rights.

Learn more about our activities in 2021.



Got this. Thanks Thin Thin.

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