I was in eastern Myanmar last month, in Shan State, with farmers who are trying to register their land claims under a new process set out by the Ministry of Agriculture.
Some of them have had land stolen by the military government or their crony companies. All of them have lived under a regime in which the law has been more a threat than a source of protection. Their decision now to take part in an official legal process signals courage, and a measure of hope.
Those farmers’ chances in life depend on whether they can make the law work for them. They are not alone. Around the world there are some four billion people who live without the protection of the law. As a result they can be unfairly driven from their land, denied essential services, and intimidated with violence.
And yet when world governments adopted development goals 15 years ago, law and justice were left out. Those original Millennium Development Goals were laudable, and we have made significant progress in improving health and education, and in reducing poverty.
But we are grievously far from what true justice demands, and we won’t get there without addressing issues of law and justice head on.
Last week in New York, a United Nations "Open Working Group" met to consider that possibility. Representatives from 30 governments, including Thailand, which is leading the debate on rule of law issues, are discussing how the rule of law and justice might figure in the global framework that succeeds the Millennium Development Goals.
We asked the same question to a community of 300 grassroots legal empowerment organisations from every region in the world. Out of that conversation emerged five measurable, achievable priorities. By committing to these now, the UN could embrace an approach to development with justice at its heart.
First, people should have information about the laws and institutions that govern their lives. Giving citizens a right to information is a powerful first step in making government more accountable. For example, New Delhi slum dwellers have used right to information requests to hugely cut delays in the issuing of ration cards for subsidised food.
Second, everyone should have access to a legal identity. Millions of people around the world, such as the Biharis in Bangladesh or the Nubians in Kenya, face discrimination when applying for birth certificates or ID cards. If you want to open a bank account, own a mobile phone, or get your child vaccinated, government documentation is often required. Governments should ensure that access to legal identity is universal, while guaranteeing that no one is unfairly denied basic services or economic opportunities due to a lack of documentation.
Third, governments and private firms alike should respect community rights over land and natural resources. About three billion people around the world live without secure rights to what are often their greatest assets: their lands, forests, and pastures. Increasing global demand for land is leading to exploitation and conflict. Research shows that giving communities the power to govern their land and natural resources leads to poverty reduction and better stewardship.
Fourth, people should be able to take part in creating and implementing laws and policies, especially those that affect them most directly. When communities in Uganda got involved in overseeing primary healthcare facilities, child mortality dropped by 30%. By giving people a say in how services are delivered, we can make government more responsive and more just.
Last, the legal system itself: for the first four commitments to have power, people must be able to obtain redress when things go wrong. Everyone should have access to fair, effective forums for resolving conflicts, seeking protection from violence, and addressing grievances with the state. This means quality services from the police, the courts, administrative tribunals, and customary authorities.
Civil society groups have a vital role in realising all five of these goals. The farmers in Shan State had gathered to meet a grassroots advocate, a "community paralegal", who answered questions about how the land registration process works. The paralegal assisted farmers with complex cases, like those involving lands that had been grabbed in the past.
Grassroots civil society efforts have proven effective in many parts of the world. In the Congo, community paralegals and public interest lawyers are helping people to hold mining firms accountable for damage to rivers and farmland.
In the United States, community organisers are working with undocumented immigrants to claim unpaid wages. But realising the quest for justice is not possible without state commitment. A global development framework is one of those rare things that nations in our fractious world gather to agree on. The goals adopted at the turn of the millennium were worthy but to fulfill them completely, to leave no one behind, justice needs to be at the centre of our new pact.
Vivek Maru is Chief Executive Officer of Namati, is building a movement of grassroots legal advocates around the world: www.namati.org.