Courtesy Reuters

Law for the Global Poor

By Karen I. Tse and Kenneth Neil Cukier, Tiernan Mennen and Viv

To the Editor:

Although Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros ("And Justice for All," May/June 2010) rightly highlight the importance of public justice systems in developing countries, their analysis begs for a rejoinder in two critical areas.

First, the article paints an overly bleak picture of the difficulties in fostering legal rights because the authors view the situation from a macro perspective and as frozen in time. Seen from the ground and over time, a different picture emerges; the situation is not so hopeless. Indeed, the very problems that Haugen and Boutros cite are symptomatic of the substantial progress taking place: the poor in developing countries are gaining an expectation of justice, and a new generation of justice defenders are pushing the limits -- hence causing the ugly backlash against them.

Second, the article overlooks the economic dimensions of abuse. In countries with embryonic judicial systems, torture is simply an inexpensive form of criminal investigation; coerced confessions relieve ill-trained and ill-funded police from having to build cases based on evidence.

After a decade of work in more than 15 countries, International Bridges to Justice -- a nonprofit group that works with governments and local law associations to improve judicial systems -- has found that once one has access to legal support, one's rights are immediately more secure. And such support -- via legal-aid centers, for example -- need not be costly. Recognizing this transforms the problem of legal rights from a political to an economic issue and creates a fresh opening for it to be addressed. Activists and policymakers can "out-finance" abuses by raising money for the establishment of infrastructure for legal aid. This would put police, prosecutors, and judges on notice that a backstop exists to prevent abuse.

The most important resource for fostering the rule of law already exists: defense lawyers. They are the shock troops for upholding legal rights, yet they are also the most vulnerable to retaliation. Legal reforms will stick only if local practitioners are supported.

KAREN I. TSE
Founder and CEO, International Bridges to Justice
KENNETH NEIL CUKIER
Member, Board of Directors, International Bridges to Justice

To the Editor:

Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros argue convincingly for a new, third-generation approach to international human rights that focuses on the enforcement of laws at the country level.

But their assertion that no human rights organizations or government agencies measure success by their "ability to bring effective law enforcement to local communities in the developing world" is simply untrue. Donors, multilateral institutions, and civil-society organizations have been supporting national-level justice reform for over a decade.

In Bolivia, for example, the U.S. Agency for International Development has invested over $20 million since 1998 in criminal justice system reform, including establishing a public defender's office. This has resulted in improved case-processing times and fewer instances of prolonged pretrial detention. USAID also helped establish legal-advice and community-mediation centers that have assisted over 150,000 people in some of the country's poorest areas.

In the British government, the Department for International Development stated in a white paper last year that "access to security and justice will be treated as an essential public service, on a par with health and education." The DFID committed to tripling its spending in this area, to 130 million pounds ($195 million) per year.

Strengthening the rule of law through justice system reform is not a perfect science. There are many necessary and complementary approaches -- from training judges in complex areas of law to redrafting poorly constructed constitutions to providing legal-aid services to indigent defendants. It is essential to empower local citizens and not overstate the ability of Western lawyers to swoop in, solve individual cases, and make a lasting impact.

This year, the Open Society Justice Initiative, the World Bank's Justice for the Poor program, and other international donors are launching the Legal Empowerment of the Poor initiative. Recognizing the critical role of civil society and local ownership, the initiative will work with local groups to support community paralegal programs and other grass-roots justice reform efforts.

TIERNAN MENNEN
Senior Project Manager, Legal Empowerment of the Poor, Open Society Justice Initiative
VIVEK MARU
Counsel, Justice Reform Group, World Bank

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