Delivering Justice through the UN's 2030 Development Agenda

August 26, 2015
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In July, 2016, the members of the United Nations will meet in New York to review progress so far on implementing the goals of the UN's 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development—including the targets for access to justice and legal identity included in Goal 16.

The Open Society Justice Initiative has been actively involved in a broad effort to deliver two key commitments in Goal 16, on ensuring equal access to justice for all, and on providing access to legal identity to all, including birth registration.

The agenda were agreed in September, 2015, after more than two years of extensive negotiations and consultations, and represent the most comprehensive vision for the future of global development yet conceived. According to Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General at the time, the agreement represented “the people’s agenda, a plan of action for ending poverty in all its dimensions, irreversibly, everywhere, and leaving no one behind.”

By setting targets for justice and governance, the Agenda went beyond the more limited focus of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs, a set of targets agreed in 2000 that provided the world with its first ever set of global development priorities.

Goal 16 is one of 17 Sustainable Development Goals set by the 2030 Agenda. It commits UN member states 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."

In addition to access to justice and legal identity, Goal 16 also includes targets addressing corruption, tackling violence, promoting accountability and transparency, and calling for access to justice and information and the promotion of the rule of law at all levels.

Further, the importance of equal access to justice and participatory and inclusive approaches to development are recognized throughout the agreement in the framing preamble, and in the other goals, targets and review mechanisms.

What does justice have to do with overcoming poverty?

Imagine a vibrant, modern economy sustaining itself where there is no respect for the sanctity of a contract, where a deed of ownership is not worth the paper it is written on, or where all disputes are resolved in a trial of strength, rather than by weighing the justice of competing claims. The rule of law is a basic precondition for sustainable economic development.

In societies with some legal protections, those who lack the resources for or access to the legal system are often denied these safeguards. It’s estimated that four billion people around the world do not enjoy the protections afforded by law.

The poorest and most vulnerable instead live at risk of losing their homes or the land upon which they depend for survival. They are exploited by corrupt government officials or local power-brokers, who use money or force to take what they want. When poor communities cannot seek justice for their grievances, the resulting anger can spill over into violence. 

If serious progress is ever going to be achieved in overcoming extreme poverty, the poor must enjoy the rule of law and functioning institutions of justice—otherwise money will continue to flow towards the powerful. 

How is the Open Society Foundations promoting justice and governance?

During the negotiations over the Sustainable Development Goals we at Open Society Foundations and our partners stressed the importance of including new targets on violence reduction, access to justice and the provision of legal identity, as well as the creation of more ways to enable citizens to take an active part in decisions that effect their well-being.

The Justice Initiative continues to work with civil society partners around the world and with governments to determine the kind of indicators that might be best used to measure progress on the goals, and to establish comparable national targets.

We could measure the number of people who have access to reliable, affordable legal information, should they need it. Or reduce to zero the number of individuals who lack a basic legal identity document which would give them access to government services.

In the meantime, the Open Society Foundations as a whole continue to work with partners on the ground. We are helping people use the law to gain access to education, health care, food and fresh water, housing, and other vital necessities. Some examples:

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