And Justice for All

Enforcing Human Rights for the World's Poor

Courtesy Reuters

For a poor person in the developing world, the struggle for human rights is not an abstract fight over political freedoms or over the prosecution of large-scale war crimes but a matter of daily survival. It is the struggle to avoid extortion or abuse by local police, the struggle against being forced into slavery or having land stolen, the struggle to avoid being thrown arbitrarily into an overcrowded, disease-ridden jail with little or no prospect of a fair trial. For women and children, it is the struggle not to be assaulted, raped, molested, or forced into the commercial sex trade.

Efforts by the modern human rights movement over the last 60 years have contributed to the criminalization of such abuses 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. At the same time, this state of functional lawlessness allows corrupt officials and local criminals to block or steal many of the crucial goods and services provided by the international development community. These abuses are both a moral tragedy and wholly counterproductive to the foreign aid programs of countries in the developed world. Helping construct effective public justice systems in the developing world, therefore, must become the new mandate of the human rights movement in the twenty-first century.


In a June 2008 report, the United Nations estimated that four billion people live outside the protection of the rule of law. As the report concluded, "Most poor people do not live under the shelter of the law"; instead, they inhabit a world in which perpetrators of abuse and violence are unrestrained by the fear of punishment. In this world, virtually every component of the public justice system -- police, defense lawyers, prosecutors, and courts -- works against, not with, the poor

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