Photo: Viktoria Verveiko / UNDP Ukraine

Originally published at the UNDP global website on November 13, 2018  

When Alena and her four-year-old son Volodya were displaced from their home in Ukraine in 2015, Alena was determined to make sure her son would feel happy in his new environment and able to fully participate in his new school. But when arriving at their new place of residence, Volodya, who was previously diagnosed with cerebral palsy, was denied his right to education. The local school claimed that Volodya was the only child requiring special assistance, which they claimed they would not be able to provide.

UNDP Ukraine, through support to dedicated legal aid offices, helped Alena connect with other parents of children with disabilities in the area and assisted these families in filing a collective appeal. As a result, the government allocated funding to the school for an assistant teacher to provide specialized education for children with disabilities.

Alena and Volodya’s story demonstrates how increasing access to justice, especially for disadvantaged groups, not only strengthens the rule of law in a country, but has a direct impact on an individual’s quality of life. Legal aid empowers people to understand and exercise their rights and can help to address the root causes of exclusion and systemic biases. Goal 16 on building peaceful, just and inclusive societies therefore includes a dedicated target on the rule of law and access to justice, which is to be considered an important accelerator of progress across the entire 2030 agenda, as it contributes to the achievement of poverty eradication (SDG 1), gender equality (SDG 5), decent work (SDG 8), and reduced inequalities (SDG 10), among others.

Through the adoption of the 2030 Agenda, and the inclusion of an explicit goal on peaceful, just and inclusive societies, Member States recognized the interdependence of justice, peace and development. Still, while a lot of progress has been made, many people in all corners of the world continue to live without access to justice and affordable legal aid. Global rates of pre-trial detention, for instance, remain worryingly high and stagnant over the last decade, at about 31 percent. And in crisis-affected contexts, where there is high demand for legal services, the justice system often lacks institutional capacities and financial resources to respond to the many grievances in society.

Legal aid programmes can help to close this justice gap by bringing the justice system closer to the people it is meant to serve. The extent to which these programmes are able to promote and protect the rights of the most marginalized – including women, youth, persons with disabilities, minority groups, LGBTI, and communities displaced by conflict, disaster or forced evictions, among others - is key to an effective justice system and essential for leaving no one behind on the path to a peaceful and sustainable future.  

UNDP works in nearly 170 countries and territories and when we ask people what ‘justice’ really means to them, they don’t just refer to the visible parts of the legal system - such as the courts, the prosecutors or the police. What people value most is fairness, equity, equality and social justice and laws and institutions that protect against discrimination and abuse of authority. Indeed, when left unaddressed, the horizontal inequalities that some groups in society tend to face on a daily basis can transform into collective grievances and frustrations, sometimes with far-reaching consequences.

Justice, therefore, remains to be seen as one of the key drivers of stability, as was also evidenced by the UN-World Bank Pathways for Peace report. This is why our work on the rule of law and justice is focused on providing effective but also accessible and affordable remedies to people’s grievances; it is part of UNDP’s comprehensive approach to sustaining peace and fostering inclusive development. 

This week UNDP and UNODC, together with the International Legal Foundation and the Open Society Justice Initiative, are co-hosting the third International Conference on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems that takes place in Tbilisi, Georgia, 13-15 November 2018. More than 300 participants from over 60 countries will gather to address global challenges and share innovative practices in ensuring access to legal aid for the poor and vulnerable. The conference will also highlight the important role legal aid and legal assistance play in accelerating progress on the 2030 Agenda, to make sure that people like Alena and Volodya are not being left behind.

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