At a webinar attended by 240 United Nations staff, speakers from UNODC, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the UN Department of Peace Operations (DPO) discussed how to assist countries to ensure that measures responding to COVID-19, such as state of emergency, do not hinder access to justice, and presented the joint UNODC/UNDP Guidance Note on Ensuring Access to Justice in the Context of COVID-19.
The Guidance Note presents key issues to consider in ensuring access to justice during the pandemic, and is divided into three sections: Preparation, Response, and Recovery. While there may be a chronological overlap across the different phases as States face differing dimensions of the crisis, the note highlights critical elements for the justice sector to respond effectively to the short, medium, and long-term impacts of the pandemic.
One aim of the webinar was to see how it can be ensured that States’ responses to COVID-19 do not impede Goal 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals, on peace, justice, and strong institutions. Staff shared experiences in working with countries through different stages of the pandemic, with presentations from South Sudan, Mexico and Libya. Outlining strategic entry points and concrete actions, colleagues discussed rights and needs of at-risk groups, possible interventions in mission settings, and explored the possibilities and limitations of e-Justice.
As UNODC Deputy Director of the Division for Operations Candice Welsch noted, COVID-19 created unprecedented challenges for justice systems across the world to ensure that the rights of victims, suspects, accused persons, witnesses and prisoners are protected. The pandemic also challenges access to essential services, that are hindered by inequalities based on wealth, health or livelihood. Emergency measures must be based on the rule of law and protect and respect international human rights standards.
Some groups face higher risks of victimization as a result of the pandemic – women, LGBTI persons and children increasingly suffer domestic violence caused by the lockdowns that are trapping victims with their perpetrators. Prisoners and detainees are also exposed to infection in confined, overcrowded spaces with bad hygiene, and, due to distancing measures, have even less access to a lawyer to help them protect their rights.
Reduced court operations often result in longer pretrial detention, or longer imprisonment of those eligible for early release. In many places, already scarce resources are being diverted away from criminal justice services towards more immediate public health measures, which leaves potential and existing victims of violence without protection and advice.
Besides access to legal services, participants were most interested in supporting countries in setting up remote court proceedings, on which Charles Briefel, DPO Senior Policy Officer, presented advice specific to lower resourced contexts. Indeed, there is a great risk that unequal access to justice will likely continue to increase because of the resort to technology, which is not easily accessible and adaptable in every country in the world, and the subsequent serious issues around privacy and data protection.