human rights, international justice, legal empowerment, public interest law, women's rights

Online Symposium on Justice and Customary Law

Hello friends! Yet another (shameless?) plug: I recently organized an Online Symposium for the Harvard Human Rights Journal on access to justice, particularly via customary and informal systems, and we received a range of fascinating submissions from scholars and practitioners around the world. Read more below and check out these illuminating articles:

From the Informal to the Formal: Examining Access to Justice and Customary Justice Mechanisms 

The HHRJ Online Symposium this year centers on issues of access to justice to the poor around the world, with a particular focus on examining the challenges that exist within informal, customary and traditional mechanisms of dispute resolution.

In many countries, the formal state-governed justice system exists alongside various informal methods of justice delivery and dispute resolution, often termed “informal,” “non-state,” “traditional,” or “customary” mechanisms. Due to the barriers faced by litigants attempting to access the formal justice system, many have began to shift a focus to informal methods of dispute resolution in a range of cases – such as family law, land and property disputes, and issues of economic and social rights. There has been an increased emphasis on mediations and on engaging with informal justice mechanisms that already exist at the grassroots level, such as the  shalish in Bangladesh, the bashingantahe in Burundi, or the shura Jirga in Afghanistan. Although informal systems of dispute resolution are often more accessible and familiar to communities, they come with their own challenges and considerations, particularly in relation to gender and human rights norms.

Alongside such concerns, however, there have been innovations and experiments that are promising in their initial stages, improving access to justice in ways that comport with human rights norms, both via formal state-run systems as well as NGO-led and non-state mechanisms.  We have published five pieces by leading scholars, academics and practitioners in this field that build upon this theme and explore in greater depth the complexities inherent in working to promote grassroots access to justice to communities, and especially the added questions raised by customary justice systems:

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criminal justice, human rights, international justice, public interest law, social change, women's rights

Kimberley Motley: on rule of law in Afghanistan

Here’s quite a fascinating TED talk by Kimberley Motley,who I know has been somewhat of a controversial figure in Afghanistan in the past. She has some interesting thoughts on what it’s like to be a lawyer, representing clients and promoting rule of law in fragile states such as Afghanistan. She represents an interesting array of cases, including gender-based violence and human rights cases in Afghanistan.

Her main thrust in this talk, which I have always agreed with  – is that in many countries, there are already many laws on the books that could protect and promote human rights. Even within Shari’a law, there are ways to interpret key statutes and the Quran in ways that are gender-equitable. There are many laws relating to family and criminal law on the books in Afghanistan and elsewhere that are indeed, good for rights. The problem is that these laws are not being used. When they are implemented effectively by lawyers who are good at advocating for their clients, you can truly foster a culture of ‘rule of law.’

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human rights, international justice, public interest law, social change

Can courts, lawyers & activists make a difference?

A great post on OpenDemocracy recently by Chris Jochnick discussed human rights tools of litigation, and how the law can be harnessed to address some of the root causes of poverty. I especially liked the following questions he asks at the end, which I think are absolutely spot on:

  1. Can resources be mobilized at scale to support human rights work that directly confronts poverty, inequities and vested interests? The longstanding bias of human rights funders against ESR continues to limit this work.

  2. Can lawyers and litigation be incorporated into grassroots struggles without co-opting them? The legal training, the proximity to power, the allure of lawsuits, the mythologies of legal expertise all conspire against good faith efforts of lawyers to serve rather than lead campaigns.

  3. Can transnational human rights advocates find a way to work closely and collaboratively enough with those living in poverty, while retaining a strategic focus on broader structural issues? The rise of stronger human rights groups in the global south, connected to social movements and networked to international platforms (with a helpful infusion from the Ford Foundation) represents a promising, if fragile, step in this direction.

These questions often pique my interest when working in the human rights field. I often question: how can we mobilize individual struggles and direct legal services into broader change, and at the same time how can human rights advocates engaging in high-level litigation or “impact” cases while still maintaining a close connection to communities?  Especially, as he writes above, the “legal training, the proximity to power…” often make it appealing for lawyers to take leading roles in campaigns rather than a backseat. At the same time, often working to provide legal services or working with clients on an individual, one-on-one basis can be particularly difficult, not to mention can be challenging to make any systemic reform.

A great post summing up some of the debates in human rights/transnational lawyering and advocacy work, and absolutely worth checking out.

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