Global Goals: The Challenge for Justice and Rights Advocates

The UN’s ambitious, new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development poses two fundamental questions for civil society groups working in the justice and governance sectors: Will the new framework, with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals, create opportunities to transform national planning and budgeting processes to strengthen justice and good governance? And, to achieve that end, what role can civil society groups play in this process?

The answer to the first question must be yes. Even the harshest critics of the Millennium Development Goals, which the 2030 Agenda will now replace, will admit that the MDGs had a significant impact on national planning processes, and on the election manifestos of political parties, which in turn shape development spending. We must now expect that the new 2030 Agenda goals will play a similar role, hopefully ensuring real progress towards the justice targets included in Goal 16, such as “ensuring equal access to justice for all” and taking steps to “provide legal identity for all, including birth registration.”

But this raises a challenge. Traditionally, many civil society groups in the justice sector have served as watchdogs, seeking to hold institutions accountable to international human rights standards and law—and essentially adopting an adversarial approach to government. We seek legal remedies for rights violations and often look towards the formal justice system to protect rights.

Now, if we believe that the 2030 Agenda and its Goal 16 commitment to “promote just, peaceful, and inclusive societies” presents a genuine political opportunity to achieve change, some of us at least may have to adopt a different approach.

Currently, few of us fully understand, let alone explain to those we work with, why or how our justice systems can be strengthened and made more accessible, or how to address structural problems within the justice system. Yet if we are to have an influence on setting national targets and concrete initiatives for the realization of Goal 16, and on establishing the metrics and monitoring systems that will be required for implementation, this will have to change. The task will require a more cooperative approach with government than many of us have been used to. 

In short, we will need to work with international bodies and states to help them understand why justice systems are inaccessible, and develop relevant recommendations. 

To contribute effectively to national action plans, civil society groups will have to conduct a critical self-assessment of the state of play in the justice sector, preferably in partnership with the government and other stakeholders. Key questions that should be answered through this exercise may include:

  • Who are the key stakeholders responsible for policy formulation on justice sector investment and reform?
  • Which actors are in charge of justice services delivery?
  • What sort of (additional) institutional capacity is required?
  • What are local innovations of providing community based justice services?
  • How can they be strengthened, supported and scaled up?
  • Who is responsible for budget and expenditure management? How do we expand the dialogue beyond the national?

This work will require coalitions with new civil society partners too, such as those working on transparency and governance issues, as well as engagement with the academic institutions to create a bank of good ideas and practices.

We will also have to learn how we can gather more evidence on public attitudes and become familiar with arguments suggesting why lack of justice is an impediment to development, or look into cost of not having community based justice services.

Local government plays a critical role in scaling up basic justice services and will need to integrate justice targets in local plans so that public funds are allocated for community-based justice services. We will need to engage both at the national and regional levels and learn how to track effective use of public finance in the justice sector.

We contend that the realization of Goal 16 requires civil society to play a critical role and call for a new kind of partnership between civil society and government. Civil Society should not have to take on the burden of providing public services or replacing local government but we have to embrace an approach to measurement and implementation that sees civil society and government as important architects working together to build transparent and accessible justice systems.

Can we bridge the divide between rights and development by making explicit access to justice as an important cornerstone of sustainable development? Meeting that challenge means that the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development could be the beginning of a new era of partnerships across the globe.

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