UNODC Executive Director stands in front of a lectern in the United Nations General Assembly hall in New York.
New York, 16 June 2023 – “Ensuring access to justice for all is key to unlocking a society’s potential for inclusive and sustainable development,” said the Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Ghada Waly, during a high-level debate on “Equal Access to Justice for All: Advancing Reforms for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies" at the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday.
Her remarks followed those of the President of the General Assembly, Csaba Kőrösi, who noted that equal access to justice was a “fundamental” human right, one that remained “an elusive promise” for many.
The Chair of the Crime Commission, Amb. Mary Mugwanja, also addressed the debate, as well as the former Attorney General of the Bahamas, the Hon. Allyson Maynard Gibson, followed by Ministers and other High-Level speakers from several countries.
Those who need justice most are often those who find it unavailable to them, noted Ms. Waly, namely the poor and marginalized, women, children, migrants, minorities and more. Many laws, regulations and attitudes discriminate against these groups, whether they are victims, or alleged or sentenced offenders. Nor are these groups consistently granted access to the resources and knowledge they need to exercise their rights in the criminal justice system.
Another major issue highlighted was the slow pace of justice institutions in ensuring equal access to justice for all. 11.2 million people worldwide were estimated to be in prison at the end of 2020, Ms. Waly said, yet one in three were being held in pre-trial detention.
Ms. Waly highlighted several ideas with the potential for transformative impact in the fight for equal access to justice. Technology should be integrated into criminal justice systems, she said, citing several examples. Digitizing court systems could make justice swifter, more efficient, and less costly. The internet can help familiarize people with their rights and connect them to legal aid services, while also helping to train justice actors. Additionally, the advent of artificial intelligence can multiply the effectiveness of justice systems by processing unprecedented amounts of data, if appropriate guardrails are established to ensure that it is safe and in line with human rights.
Supporting more sustainable and diverse providers of legal aid can also help boost access to justice, Ms. Waly added, including private, public, and civil society providers. “Investing in robust, sustainably funded legal aid systems has proven to result in better justice outcomes, while also being more cost-efficient than building larger prisons and detention facilities.”
The justice sector must also become more diverse in terms of gender and minority representation – a main aim of UNODC’s “Women in justice/for justice” campaign. The campaign supports increasing women’s representation and leadership in the justice sector because it can lead to more effective, victim-centered responses to crime, as well as greater accountability.
UNODC has been working extensively in these areas to improve access to justice. It recently launched a research project to analyze the impact of e-justice initiatives on access to justice which will help improve understanding of the risks and opportunities from using technology in crime prevention and criminal justice.
In 2020, for example, UNODC and the Thailand Institute of Justice launched a Toolkit on Gender-Responsive Non-Custodial Measures, as well as an e-learning module on the Nelson Mandela Rules in Thai language in 2021 to share good practices broadly among criminal justice practitioners.
UNODC’s efforts in enhancing access to legal aid, meanwhile, have had a strong impact on the ground. Working with UN Women in West Africa to enhance access to legal aid for women, UNODC helped train over 1,200 women through community-based legal education, as well as 1,100 judges, prosecutors and lawyers. In Liberia, over 700 women were released from prison and reintegrated into their communities, after human rights violations were identified by legal aid providers.
In 2022, UNODC trained over 17,500 Mexican police officers and first responders on early detection and referral of gender-based violence cases in order to promote investigation and prevent escalation to femicide. In Egypt, UNODC supported the national Forensic Medicine Authority by training 100 forensic doctors and establishing and equipping specialized clinics to provide medical and psychological care to survivors of gender-based violence. These steps also increase the reliability of evidence in rape cases.
“Ensuring equal access to justice for all, regardless of their background, actions, or circumstances, preserves our collective humanity,” Ms. Waly concluded, urging new thinking and a renewed commitment to building a world where justice is available and guaranteed to all.