And justice for all: Enforcing human rights for the poor
Gary Haugen of International Justice Mission writes:
— Hilda reports the rape of her 12-year-old daughter to the local police in a slum in a Latin American metropolis. The officers don’t have a car to arrest the suspect and instead instruct the diminutive woman to find the accused — a physically imposing security guard — and bring him on foot to the station herself.
— Halfway around the world, Sriram is held as a forced laborer in a South Asian brick kiln; he would report the abuse, but his owner is a leading local politician.
— In Africa, when Veronica tells a judge that her brother threatened to kill here while he was illegally seizing her home, he suggests she learn to “get along” with her family.
Efforts by the modern human rights movement over the last 60 years have contributed to the criminalization of violent human rights abuses, including those against Hilda, Sriram, and Veronica, in nearly every country.
The problem for the poor, however, is that those laws are rarely enforced.
Without functioning public justice systems to deliver the protections of the law to the poor, the legal reforms of the modern human rights movement rarely improve the lives of those who need them most. In fact, in much of the world, the poor find that virtually every component of the public justice system — police, defense lawyers, prosecutors, and courts — works against, not with, them.
The average poor person in the developing world has probably never met a police officer who is not, at best, corrupt or, at worst, gratuitously brutal. When a poor person comes into contact with the public justice system beyond the police, it is frequently because he or she has been charged with a crime. With incomes for the global poor hovering around $1-$2 a day, the average poor person cannot hope to pay legal fees — and will likely never even meet a lawyer.
Even when cases are reported and referred for trial, there are frequently too few public prosecutors to handle the volume. This creates an enormous backlog, allowing cases to languish indefinitely. Some experts, for example, have estimated that at the current rate, it would take 350 years for the courts in Mumbai, India, to hear all the cases on their books. According to the UN Development Program, someone who is detained while awaiting trial in India often serves more than the maximum length of his or her prospective sentence before a trial date is set.
The modern human rights movement began in the years following World War II, when a number of scholars and diplomats began an effort to articulate and codify international standards on fundamental rights in documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the following decades, these standards were embedded into national law by individual governments throughout the developing world.
The tragic irony, however, is that the enforcement of these political, civil, economic, and human rights was left to utterly dysfunctional national law enforcement institutions, which were developed during the colonial era to serve the elites and appropriated — with little change — by authoritarian governments at the departure of colonial powers. As a result, these systems have rarely effectively protected the poor — they were never designed to.
… The modern human rights movement must enter into a new era, shifting its focus from legal reform to law enforcement. On the local level, approaches must focus on directly cultivating the political will and capacity of the police, prosecutors, and judges who are supposed to enforce the law on behalf of the poor. At the state level, aid must focus on developing both the political will and the capacity of government elites to enforce existing laws.
… We can no longer stand by as billions in this world are daily ravaged by lawlessness. Without functioning public justice systems we will never make human rights meaningful and international development sustainable.
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