Briefing on the Secretary-General’s new Vision for the Rule of Law
Justice, in all its forms, is vital to peace, a fair and durable social contract, and sustainable development.
This interlocking relationship is reflected in the promise of Sustainable Development Goal 16, which commits 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”.
Today, SDG16 – like so many of the SDGs – is off track. While important advances have been achieved, these have been inconsistent and country-specific: globally, we are short of justice that is accessible and available to all. Many rule of law and justice institutions face both a crisis of capacity and a crisis of public trust. Millions of people have no effective access to justice, and live in conditions of profound injustice.
Let me pull out two numbers from the 2019 report by the Task Force on Justice.
First, an estimated quarter of a billion people are living in extreme conditions of injustice, deprived of any meaningful protection of the law.
Second, an estimated 4.5 billion people – no less than 60 percent of the people on this planet – are excluded from social, economic, and political protections and opportunities that the law ought to provide. They lack land tenure, residency papers or housing documentation; or they are employed without contracts in the informal sector. As a result, they are deprived of adequate access to healthcare, education, bank loans and specific types of jobs. They may have limited access to institutions that ought properly to represent, express, protect and enforce rights – such as political processes, public administration, the police, and the courts. The most vulnerable are the most trapped in pernicious cycles of disempowerment.
The High-Level Group of Justice for Women has highlighted that women and children face the greatest obstacles in accessing justice. It found that in 2017 more than one billion women lacked protection from sexual violence by an intimate partner, while an estimated 1.5 billion had no legal protection against sexual harassment at work.
Corruption is another far-reaching impediment to good governance and justice. The World Bank’s Control of Corruption index indicates the scale of people’s perception that public power is being exercised for private gain, in every region. The 2022 Sustainable Development report finds that 15 per cent of businesses world-wide – one in every seven companies – have faced requests for bribes by public officials. Corruption in the judiciary, meanwhile, severely undermines the legitimacy of, and confidence in, the judicial system – a core principle of the rule of law.
As is true of corruption, today’s accelerating inequalities and disinformation, as well as insufficient measures to uphold the independence, impartiality and effectiveness of legal institutions, are deepening a broad crisis of public trust in the ability of their governments to deliver on their needs and rights.
When people do not believe in the legitimacy and effectiveness of public institutions, and their ability to address conflicts, grievances will grow and fester. Disputes cannot be properly resolved. Tensions spark into violence.
For the rule of law to play its part in rebuilding trust, public institutions need to be more responsive, fair and effective.
Responsive, in the sense that public institutions have to centre on people and their rights, by understanding people’s justice needs and developing appropriate solutions, by including them and by being accountable to them.
Fair, in that public institutions must not discriminate and must be free from corruption or undue influence.
Effective, in that public institutions need to be able to address contemporary shocks and challenges and provide the services – legal services, but also the full gamut of human rights that people need.
The point I would like to make here is that, just as the rule of law is a central component of the effective promotion and protection of human rights, human rights are at the heart of the rule of law and building trust in public institutions. Human rights are the Grundnorm, the underlying basis for any functioning rule of law system.
The Secretary-General’s new Vision of the Rule of Law, which was launched in June, reaffirms this symbiotic relationship. The Vision recognizes not only that the rule of law and human rights are mutually reinforcing – but that if the rule of law is to serve people and build trust, it must be fully aligned with human rights.
My Office is ready to play a leading role within the UN system to put the Secretary-General’s new Vision into action.
And in the context of the Human Rights 75 celebrations, I am committed to deepen and broaden our Office’s work on the rule of law and SDG 16, by investing in our rule of law work in the field and at Headquarters.
With this renewed effort, we will continue helping States, communities and people everywhere to make the rule of law a reality, and by shaping public institutions that serve people, and which are able to respond to the hard challenges we face today.
In a few minutes, we will be hearing from the Chief of our Rule of Law Branch, Abdoul Aziz Thioye, about the new Vision and the detailed work the Office is doing across a wide range of rule of law topics, which we will continue building on.
I’d like to expand a little on the urgency of this task of building trust by strengthening the rule of law and human rights. Allow me to provide two examples.
First, in spite of the enormous potential of technology, scandals around Pegasus and other spyware, as well as mass surveillance tools have demonstrated that technology can pose immediate threats to the rule of law and human rights. While AI has obvious potential for good, it can also be used to grant autonomy to lethal weapons systems, facilitate mass surveillance, exacerbate discrimination and disinformation, limit the fairness of trials, and bolster authoritarianism.
In order to harness the potential of technology, the rule of law needs to provide an effective framework for technology through clear regulation and binding guardrails. In short, to be effective and humane, any regulation must be grounded in human rights.
My second example concerns the broad area of climate justice. Our work to protect the environment through the rule of law is expanding significantly. I am thinking of the General Assembly’s recognition of a right to a healthy environment. Increased use of litigation to hold polluters accountable are taking place in many countries. There is new discussion on a crime of ‘ecocide’ under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. I also see expanding opportunities for environmental advocacy, accountability and prevention linked to rule of law.
In the face of the severity and acceleration of environmental crises all around us, we need to go further, faster and deeper with this work. Human rights and the rule of law can provide essential guardrails and a driving force for the urgent search for sustainable solutions to our triple planetary crisis that are grounded in our common values.
Today, in light of our August spotlight on Justice, and as part of our year-long initiative to rekindle the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I look to you to take urgent action in response to these and other challenges. I encourage you to consider possible pledges to strengthen the rule of law and human rights, in particular by placing the rule of law and human rights at the centre of discussions at the upcoming SDG Summit next month, and at the 2024 Summit of the Future.
We need to get SDG16 back on track – including through adequate global financing, by reporting on its indicators, and by prioritising the implementation of its commitments.
And we need to give our societies the best possible tools to address rising global threats. Those tools are a sound rule of law and the powerful social cohesion that stems from realising the full range of human rights through a framework of equality, fairness and justice.
In today’s turmoil, with increasingly sharp-edged inequalities between people and rising divisions and grievances, we can and we must build on the Secretary-General’s Vision. Through it, we commit to assisting States to build systems of justice and the rule of law that are more responsive, fair and effective and firmly grounded in human rights.
I hope that today’s briefing provides us with an opportunity for dialogue about how to build on our rule of law work and to make the most of upcoming global discussions.