Justice in a Global Emergency

by , , | Jun 17, 2020

This article is part of our Freedom and Justice Week series – as Global Dashboard provides a platform for a diversity of voices to explore how we respond to the wave of protests that followed the murder of George Floyd. Read all the articles in the series here.

A cry for justice is echoing around the world. In the US, millions of people are marching to demand changes to the failures of the American justice system after the murder of George Floyd, with the Black Lives Matter protests spreading rapidly to other countries. In Mali, crowds gathered to demand change to a justice system that is considered corrupt. The cry for an independent judiciary was loud on the streets of Beirut last weekend.

If any President or Prime Minister, parliamentarian or senior public servant, judge or police chief is surprised about this growing wave of protest, they are wilfully naive. After all, we have been here before. The spark that lit the Arab Spring was the death of the Tunisian fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi. He set himself alight outside a government building after repeated harassment by the police who used his lack of a licence to assault him, steal his produce, and demand bribes. Ten years apart, George Floyd and Mohamed Bouazizi had their lives stolen from them, as a minor justice problem became the trigger for an uprising.

In too many countries, justice systems serve the needs of the few, not the many. Governments try to deliver universal health and education, but too few are committed to providing justice for all. At any one time, 1.5 billion people have criminal, civil, and administrative justice problems they cannot solve. They are victims of crime, face eviction or have fallen into debt, are in a dispute with an employer or neighbour, or are struggling to access the public services that should be available to them. This injustice wrecks lives as much as a denial of healthcare or schooling, and it hits hardest groups who are most discriminated against by their societies.

“In too many countries, justice systems serve the needs of the few, not the many”

Despite the scale of unmet need, justice systems remain resistant to change. Most lack systematic ways to monitor the legal needs of their citizens and to track what is and is not working. They fail to use the latest scientific knowledge and are largely offline and paper-based. And, far from serving the public, many frontline justice institutions are exploitative, corrupt, or violent. Courts often protect the interests of the privileged and many communities fear the police. For too long, we have allowed our systems of justice to escalate disputes, exacerbate conflict, entrench discrimination, and fuel grievances among those who already have the least reason to trust the society they live in.

The COVID-19 crisis has brought the justice gap into sharp focus. Governments have imposed harsh restrictions on freedom of movement and association, and these have often been enforced inequitably. We have seen a surge in domestic violence and family disputes, gangs strengthening their hold on neighbourhoods where the state’s authority is weak, and criminals probing for opportunities to siphon off money that is supposed to be used for humanitarian needs and for recovery.

But the demand for justice will continue to grow. The World Bank expects the global economy to shrink by at least 5% this year, as a wave of job losses, bankruptcies, and evictions builds. In the coming months, tens or hundreds of millions of landlords and tenants, creditors and debtors, employers and employees, businesses and consumers will need help in resolving disputes. Divorces and other family disputes will also spike upwards. As a result, the number of people with unmet legal needs seems certain to grow beyond 1.5 billion.

This will happen at a time when COVID-19 is undermining the capacity of justice systems to deliver. Frontline justice workers are falling ill in increasing numbers. Many government buildings have been shut and no-one can access the paper files that most justice systems still depend on. A recent survey of justice leaders by HiiL, a Dutch social enterprise dedicated to user-friendly justice, demonstrates widespread alarm at how overloaded systems are, with lockdowns leading a large backlog in cases as institutions were shut down.

But for better or worse, the justice sector will remain on the frontline of this pandemic. If justice systems fail to deliver, it will be hard or impossible to control the pandemic, while the economic recovery will be stymied. The wave of protest is also likely to grow, as trust between citizen and state is destroyed.

“The justice sector will remain on the frontline of this pandemic”

But there is a better way. As justice leaders, we are part of a movement that starts with people and their need for justice, finds innovative and lower cost ways to prevent or solve these problems, and uses justice systems to provide a platform for people to participate fully in their communities, economies, and societies. These people-centred approaches address inequalities rather than exacerbate them. They support communities rather than abuse them. And they create opportunities for renewal rather than blocking the long road to recovery.

So, what are our recommended next steps?

First, we urge ministers who are responsible for justice in every country to stand together at this time of crisis, just as health ministers are doing as they scale up testing, improve treatments, and search for vaccine. It would send a strong message if ministers made a joint commitment to tracking people’s justice needs, understanding their experience of injustice at the hands of state institutions, and implementing ambitious plans to fill the justice gap.

Second, justice ministers must make the case for investing in people-centred justice to their Presidents or Prime Ministers, given the massive risks that societies face if the thirst for justice continues to be denied. Resources must be redirected from approaches that are ineffective or that are exacerbating injustice. Partnerships with the private sector and with other sectors are essential. But new finance to fill the justice gap should be included in all stimulus and bailout packages.

Third, the justice ministers must innovate. Proven approaches to prevent violence and crime should be implemented, drawing on models that have been tested around the world. The law should be used as a tool to reduce the burden of injustice in areas such as housing, debt, and employment, and also within justice systems where far too many people languish in prison systems. Justice should be taken online wherever possible, with ministers leading a mission to de-escalate disputes rather than entangling people in expensive court proceedings.

We have seen the transformative power of people-centred justice, in Kenya, Peru, and The Bahamas – how it can provide a new hope and a new direction for a society. We also know from experience how difficult and often lonely reform can be. That is why the justice leaders need to come together in a global movement to get the job done.

Protesters facing the police outside St. Paul City Hall: Photo: Fibonaaci Blue, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


  • Diego García-Sayán, UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, Former Minister of Justice of Peru and former President of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

  • Allyson Maynard-Gibson, Barrister, former Attorney-General and Minister for Legal Affairs of The Bahamas

  • Willy Mutunga, Former Chief Justice & President Supreme Court, Republic of Kenya. Now building the Office of the Former Chief Justice (OFCJ) as a public office as decreed by the Kenyan Parliament.

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