As chairman and founder of the Open Society Foundations, George Soros is the world’s largest private funder of human rights issues, supporting groups around the world working on a wide range of issues: from fighting discrimination to supporting media freedom to equal access to healthcare and more.
But over the past few years, Mr Soros has been increasingly speaking about one underlying principle—that access to justice for everyone is the key to ensuring that people actually enjoy the rights, and the security, that are theoretically promised by national and international law.
As result, this year has seen Mr Soros putting himself into the effort to get this idea embedded in the world’s global development agenda, arguing at the United Nations in New York this week that “law is as central to development as health, education, or protection of the environment”.
While noting the successes of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) launched by the UN in 2000, he continued: “Large pockets of extreme poverty persist…It's no surprise that the bulk of these people are subject to some kind of discrimination, exclusion, or oppression. In short, an absence of justice.”
UN members are now debating what will replace the MDGs after they expire in 2015. This weeks’ event, chaired by Jan Eliasson, the UN’s deputy secretary general, was part of the continuing effort to ensure that the new framework, unlike the MDGs, includes specific targets for access to justice.
The other panel members included Lloyd Axeworthy, the former Canadian foreign minister, and Clotilde Médégan-Nougbodé, a judge at the Community Court of West African States and a high court justice in Benin, both of whom served on the UN Commission for Legal Empowerment of the Poor. The commission concluded five years ago that while “making poverty history” can't be achieved by legal empowerment alone, “it is hard to see how it can be done without it.”
In his remarks, Mr Soros cited examples of how legal empowerment approaches, using community-based paralegals, had delivered concrete development gains in Bangladesh, Kenya and Liberia—an approach supported by the Global Initiative on Legal Empowerment which Open Society has supported since 2011.
“Today, the legal empowerment movement includes civil society, governments, and the international donors,” he added. “This infrastructure is eager to see justice included in the post-2015 goals and its work will be greatly facilitated if their request is fulfilled.”
He also identified four key areas that have emerged from the legal empowerment movement which he regarded as crucial, and which should be the basis for a measurable set of targets in the new UN global development agenda:
1. LEGAL IDENTITY: Being recognized as a person under the law is critical to everyday life. You need it to send your children to school or to receive medical care. State-issued legal identity documents, such as birth registrations, are usually needed.
2. ACCESS TO INFORMATION. People should be able to find out about the laws and regulations that govern their lives.
3. Both individuals and communities need to have their PROPERTY RIGHTS protected. Giving communities protection against land grabbing and the misappropriation of natural resources would be a great contribution to the fight against poverty.
4. People need access to LEGAL SERVICES, both at the community-level and in formal justice institutions like the courts. For access to justice to be fair, people need to have legal aid—either through lawyers or through paralegals.
Open Society Foundations, its legal empowerment partner Namati, and other grass roots groups have been discussing the kind of measurable targets that could best be articulated for these four basic areas—some preliminary proposals on measurement are outlined in a new fact sheet that can be downloaded from our website.
We have also been encouraged that the High Level Panel of experts convened by the UN Secretary General that launched the post-2015 debate at this year’s General Assembly recognized the importance of access to justice.
The next three months will be now crucial. Some seventy UN member states are now working on a report on the new post-2015 goals that will shape the decisions taken further down the road. They should look at the evidence and seize the opportunity to make justice central to global development.