Rule of Law ‘Thread that Runs through Every Aspect of Fair, Well-functioning Society’, Deputy Secretary-General Tells Event on Justice, Development

12 December 2013

Rule of Law ‘Thread that Runs through Every Aspect of Fair, Well-functioning Society’, Deputy Secretary-General Tells Event on Justice, Development

12 December 2013
Deputy Secretary-General
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Rule of Law ‘Thread that Runs through Every Aspect of Fair, Well-functioning

Society’, Deputy Secretary-General Tells Event on Justice, Development

Following are Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson’s opening remarks to the “Access to Justice and the Post-2015 Development Agenda” event in New York, today, 12 December:

A very warm welcome to this discussion on a very important subject.  I hope that you have decided to spend lunch time here because you share this view.  First of all, I want to thank the Permanent Missions of Benin and the United Kingdom, the Open Society Foundation and the United Nations Development Programme for hosting this important event.

In the year 2000, world leaders agreed on a historic 15-year blueprint to address poverty.  As the work to reach the Millennium Development Goals approaches its deadline, there is a growing recognition that more might have been achieved by placing greater emphasis on justice and the rule of law as a vehicle for development.  I think we can admit this.

The post-2015 development agenda offers a unique opportunity to place the rule of law in this context of development.  When justice and rule of law is extended to all, the benefits are felt across the international agenda, whether it is peace and security, human rights or development.

In September last year, at the General Assembly’s first-ever high-level meeting on the rule of law, Member States representing many different legal cultures and traditions united around the idea that development and the rule of law are mutually reinforcing.  Since the high-level meeting, this guiding principle of the reinforcing character of the rule of law has been reiterated by Member States, the Secretary‑General, and myself and many others in the international community.

The rule of law is not an abstract concept; it is the thread that runs through every aspect of a fair and well-functioning society.  And let me give you some concrete examples.

Enforceable contracts and fair labour regulations support growth and the eradication of poverty.  Secondly, an effective criminal justice system improves people’s security.  Thirdly, a just constitution promotes equality and helps ensure that those in power work for the good of society.  Fourthly, a strong and independent justice system can hold the state to account and protect human rights.  And fifth, lastly, fair election laws enable every voice to be heard and all votes to be counted.

These were only five examples, but you could probably carry on with 10 or 15 more.  All this is basic for sustainable development.  Sustainable development cannot be separated from justice and the rule of law. 

I’ll give you another example, political change in Tunisia, which is a case in point.  Despite economic progress in the first part of the century and also achieving some Millennium Development Goals, popular discontent over corruption and other failings in governance swept away an old order.  But this proves that economic growth alone is not an adequate measure of development.  Justice matters.  A critical component of the new development agenda must therefore be greater access to justice.

Access to justice is to ensure that individuals and communities can obtain redress when wrongs are committed.  So this means the removal of barriers that prevent the poorest and most vulnerable from achieving their potential and participating in society on equal terms.  And it means that women and girls are empowered to assert their rights and take hold of opportunities.

And let me give you an example of how the rule of law assistance provided by the United Nations can make a difference.  I’ll give you another example: in Montenegro, the cost of filing a lawsuit is so prohibitive that pursuing justice is nearly impossible for the average person, particularly for women.  UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) cooperation with the Government and support for legal aid has resulted in affordability and availability of legal counselling.  And this has increased trust in justice institutions.  And trust is a key word for development and for any society’s progress.

Trust is an essential element of the rule of law.  It is undermined by corruption.  Corruption distorts markets, corrodes quality of life and is conducive to violations of human rights.  And this is why we need initiatives such as the Bhutan Anti-Corruption Commission, supported by UNDP.  To fight corruption within the public service, the Commission receives complaints from the public through telephone, post, email or fax — the Commission is responding to people's demands for accountability.

For a State to be truly accountable, its citizens must have legal identity so that they can exercise their rights.  Nearly 230 million children under the age of 5 in the world have not had their births registered.  This means that they do not exist before the law.  They are at risk of exclusion and exploitation.  They may have difficulty accessing the most basic of services.  Lack of a complete registration system also means that government is hampered in planning for their needs.

In Yemen, 83 per cent of children — 83 percent of children, I repeat that — under the age of 5 have no legal identity.  Working with UNICEF [United Nations Children’s Fund] and the European Union, the Government has so far established 40 new birth registration centres.  As of now about 13,000 conflict-affected, displaced or vulnerable children have been provided with birth certificates.

When I was mediating in the Darfur crisis in 2007‑2008, I often visited villages in Darfur and asked the villagers how many could prove who they are.  And very few said that they could.  Many people around the world cannot prove who they are.  I don’t know the exact figure, but it is very high.  And if you think about the consequences in all respects and also the indignity of not being able to prove who you are: the indignity.  This is what we mean when we say that the rule of law cannot be measured.  Efficient and responsive rule of law institutions are critical to delivering justice and to achieving sustainable development. 

And in closing I would still say, in spite of progress in the recognition of the centrality of rule of law, a deeper understanding is needed.  As requested by the General Assembly, the Secretary-General, and my Office [on] the rule of law, has begun consultations on the links between the rule of law and the three pillars of the organization’s work: peace, development and human rights.  These discussions will deepen our understanding and enable us to take a more comprehensive approach to the rule of law.  And this event here today is another welcome contribution to these efforts.

Our future development agenda should be ambitious and, I would hope, inspirational.  It should have poverty eradication as its priority, but it should also have sustainable development at its core.  And the rule of law clearly deserves a place on this agenda.  Today, we will explore why.  I look forward to a fruitful discussion.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.