Like health ministers, the world’s ministers of justice are on the frontline of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But unlike health ministers who meet regularly through the G20, regional organisations, and other fora, ministers of justice of the world do not have the same opportunities to work together across borders. This lack of international collaboration has put a brake on innovation in the best of times. Let’s change that – fast.
Justice on the Frontline
Justice systems are on the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic. They are responsible for designing and policing the lockdowns that are being used to control the public health emergency. After lockdowns are relaxed, they must regulate surveillance technologies that will be used to track and trace infections.
Across the world, the number of interactions between police and citizens has soared to unprecedented levels (with mixed results). A humanitarian disaster is underway in many prisons, with some countries doing their best to send as many prisoners as possible home.
Isolated in their homes, women and children face rising levels of domestic violence, and need urgent support from formal and informal justice actors. Some countries have already experienced rising disorder, due to protests, or as organised criminals and armed groups exploit the crisis.
While the UN Secretary-General has received a positive response to his call for a global ceasefire, the risks of unrest and violence are now very high.
While coercive justice responses will fuel these risks, people-centred justice can be used to address grievances, reassure communities that disputes can be resolved peacefully, and make the powerful accountable.
The deepening global economic depression will substantially increase demand for justice, as people lose their jobs, their homes, or their land, and as businesses – large and small – face bankruptcy. Massive bailout programs will only be effective if they are protected from corruption and regulated by the rule of law.
People – and young people above all – will cry out for justice as the world attempts to “recover better” from the pandemic. As we entered the 2020s, 1.5 billion people had unsolved justice problems, while structural injustices had allowed inequality, exclusion, and climate change to threaten our shared future.
COVID-19 has triggered a further social, political, and economic dislocation that could turn countries against themselves and each other, and erode the world’s capacity for collective action just when we need it most.
Will Justice Leaders Step Up?
The task facing justice leaders is daunting. They face it with systems and structures that are outdated and resistant to change, and that are as far from providing universal access to justice services as health systems were a century ago.
The pandemic has made their task harder. They have been forced to close courtrooms, restrict access to police stations, and suspend other forms of face-to-face provision. Their frontline justice workers are becoming sick in alarming numbers.
But there is hope. We see the beginning of a wave of innovation and the emergence of a movement committed to the imperatives of people-centred justice – preventing and solving justice problems, and using justice systems to create opportunities for people to participate fully in their societies and economies.
At this time of unprecedented emergency, we need to capture that hope, ride the wave of innovation, and energise the movement for justice for all. But for this to happen, space must be created for justice leaders to lead. And through new types of justice leadership.
In the age of COVID-19, leaders must understand how people’s needs for justice are being changed by the public health emergency, the economic crisis, and a wave of related changes in how people relate to each other and to their governments.
They must use this understanding to design new strategies and retool their institutions, embracing data-driven and evidence-based ways of working, and breaking with past models where institutions and structures were more important than people and their justice problems.
And third, they must innovate. Not simply to move face-to-face operations online – though this is now urgent – but to increase their commitment to prevention, rather than just acting after the fact, and to building partnerships that can deliver justice at scale and at reasonable cost within the communities where people live and work.
This is a task not just for ministers of justice, but also their partners: chief justices, chief prosecutors, presidents of human rights commissions, and parliamentarians on justice committees.
Space for Justice Leadership
For this to happen, space must be created for justice leaders to lead. To strengthen justice in the pandemic, we should:
1. Create a forum for ministers of justice to share best practice and identify urgent actions to put justice at the heart of pandemic response. This forum could meet virtually within a matter of weeks.
2. At a regional level, bring together informal groups of justice leaders – so countries with similar pandemic and justice challenges can work together.
3. Help justice leaders to solve the problems they face, by asking our network of former ministers, attorneys-general and senior judges to support them and respond to their requests.
In a fast-moving emergency, we need to be agile and to act quickly. Perhaps the Secretary-General could issue an invitation for justice leaders to meet to feed into the next iteration of the global plan to tackle the pandemic. Or former President Mary Robinson could convene the first meeting in her role as chair of the Elders. In 2021, we ask the Italian government as chair of the G20 and the British government as chair of the G7 to put people-centred justice on their agendas.
Justice leaders also need practical support. We should:
4. Rapidly build an “IPCC for justice” – a knowledge platform that will bring experts together to rapidly inform national leaders on emerging policy challenges, building on models that are common the health sector.
5. Set up a solutions platform, where justice leaders and their teams can find innovators, and work with them to develop their ideas, implement at scale, and learn from what works.
6. Expand justice-for-all coalitions at local levels, by empowering paralegals, legal empowerment activists, traditional leaders, and other community workers to solve more justice problems on the ground.
7. Bring together public, private, and philanthropic funders to provide “fast finance” for justice innovations, again building on health models.
The COVID-19 pandemic places demand on more than health systems. Well-functioning justice systems are important in normal times – they are critical in the current crisis. Public health and economic measures must be fairly designed and justly implemented if they are to maintain the legitimacy and support they need. Otherwise, trust and social cohesion will vanish, economies will fail to recover, and many people will die unnecessarily.
If there ever was a time for justice leaders to unite and to work together, it is now.