Focus on justice for all

August 01, 2019

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I.A. Rehman
I.A. Rehman

ONE of the most significant activities at the United Nations last month was a review of the progress towards realising Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16 (peace, inclusive societies, justice for all), under the aegis of the High Level Political Forum (HLPF), and on the basis of Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) submitted by Pakistan and 46 other states.

Pakistan’s VNR is a remarkable document, for its positive features are fewer than the negative ones.

Issued under the signatures of Makhdum Khusro Bakhtiar, the federal minister concerned, the document recounts the steps taken by the previous government to realise the SDGs. Reference is made to Pakistan’s commitment to the 2030 agenda since its inception in 2015, the National Assembly resolution of 2016, the establishment of SDG task forces in the National Assembly and the provincial assemblies, the sensitisation of 134 members of task forces and 500 other parliamentarians through activities organised by the Pakistan Institute of Parliamentary Services, and the local government summit of March 2017.

Mention is also made of the “greatest number of legislative frameworks” that are related to SDG 16. The list includes 41 laws made by the previous federal and provincial governments.

The failure to report progress on SDG 16 implies a bid to hide a poor record and shying away from reality.

These statements constitute a healthy departure from the government’s main narrative that concentrates almost wholly on the incredible sins of the previous rulers.

The negative features of Pakistan’s VNR include omission of any discussion on SDG 16 that was the focus of HLPF concerns. The government of Pakistan has prioritised SDGs into three categories. SDG 16 (Peace, Justice and Inclusivity) has been put in Category 1, along with SDG 2 (no hunger), SDG 3 (good health and well-being), SDG 4 (quality education), SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation), SDG 7 (affordable and clean energy), and SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth). These goals are said to be those “that require immediate attention to achieve rapid results which will pave the way for achieving the remaining goals”.

While there is some substance in this formulation there is apparently a lack of comprehension of the fact that without moving towards an inclusive society and guaranteeing justice for all the fruits of success on other goals cannot be guaranteed to all citizens on the basis of equity,

The failure to report progress on SDG 16 embarrassed Pakistan’s friends and implied a bid to hide a poor record and shying away from reality. The world is not unaware of the hurdles Pakistan has put on the road towards building an inclusive society, by blinking at discrimination against non-Muslim citizens, women, working people and the poor.

In view of the difficulties a majority of citizens face in gaining access to justice and the high cost involved, justice for all is an unattainable goal for them. Further, the way the space for basic freedoms (of speech, movement and assembly) is being curtailed, the state will be deprived of the support of probably a majority, of the stakeholders.

Pakistan must dispel the international community’s apprehensions about its lack of will and capacity to realise SDG 16 and do so quickly, otherwise even the goodwill Dr Maleeha Lodhi has built with a large number of her peers and with the UN Secretariat might not be sufficient to protect it from censure.

While discussion was going on at the HLPF, a report on the urgency of ensuring justice for all was released by the Elders, a group of independent leaders, brought together by Nelson Mandela, who use their collective experience and influence for peace, justice and human rights worldwide.

The report was prepared by The Task Force on Justice, created by the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies. It is chaired by ministers from Argentina, the Netherlands, and Sierra Leone, and the Elders (represented by one of Pakistan’s leading human rights defenders, Hina Jilani). This report has special importance for the judiciary, legal community and the civil society in countries such as Pakistan.

The report argues that for realising SDG 16.3, which promises to ensure equal justice for all by 2030, justice must be put at the heart of sustainable development, people must be put at the centre of justice systems, and all societies must move from justice for a few to justice for all.

The task force has highlighted three dimensions of the global justice gap. No less than 5.1 billion people fall in at least one of the three vulnerable groups. Around the world, women, children, poor people, people with disabilities and people from ethnic minorities find it hard to access justice. The three groups are: 4.5bn are excluded from the social, economic and political opportunities that the law provides; 1.5bn have a criminal, civil or administrative justice problem they cannot solve; 253 million live in extreme conditions of injustice without any meaningful legal protections.

According to the report, the greatest needs for justice are found in six areas: violence and crime, debt and consumer problems, housing and land disputes, access to and quality of public services, family disputes, problems at work faced by employees/ employers.

The Elders’ four recommendations that deserve serious attention are:

“— Delivering access to justice is critical to the full implementation of SDG 16 and the wider 2030 development agenda;

“— Legal systems must be reformed and modernised so that they are responsive, innovative, inclusive, people-centred, and uphold human rights;

“— Independent legal support, such as community-based paralegals, should be supported to help citizens navigate systems and find practical, timely solutions;

“— Violence against women and girls must be addressed urgently as a profound global injustice, by political, traditional and religious leaders.”

The effectiveness of community-based paralegals was demonstrated when the Elders’ chairperson, Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and former UN high commissioner for human rights, announced awards for four organisations, two of them belonging to South Asia, one from India and the other from Bangladesh.

The need for a movement for justice for all in Pakistan cannot be overemphasised.

Published in Dawn, August 1st, 2019