Ladies and gentlemen,
Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
As the only international legal instrument on the right to legal aid, the adoption of the UN Principles and Guidelines in 2012 was a ground-breaking step towards strengthening justice everywhere.
They ensure the right to a fair trial and equality before the law, irrespective of background, means, or gender.
They enable people to navigate the justice system – which is oftentimes complicated, costly and protracted.
Above all, they protect those who lack the means to protect themselves, be it victims, witnesses, or defendants.
Ten years after their adoption, the Principles and Guidelines remain just as relevant.
During this time, Member States have attributed increasing importance to legal aid as a catalyst for justice.
In 2015, the UN Nelson Mandela Rules recognized legal aid as a fundamental requirement for all prisoners, from pre-trial detainees to sentenced prisoners.
Between 2019 and 2020, the prison population worldwide increased by a quarter, while one in three prisoners were held without a trial.
If we are to guarantee justice for all, we must ensure that all prisoners and detainees have access to legal aid.
Such access is also vital in drug-related cases, as recognized by the UN General Assembly in 2016.
Poverty, limited education, and social marginalization amplify the risks facing people with drug use disorders, who may lack the knowledge or financial resources to effectively defend themselves in court.
Legal aid is a vital lifeline for those who face stigma and discrimination which may prevent them from accessing health care or legal services.
More recently, the Kyoto Declaration adopted by the 2021 Crime Congress reiterated the need to promote the practical application of the UN Principles and Guidelines.
It further called for a stronger international legal aid network, to exchange information and best practices.
UNODC, as the guardian of the principles and guidelines, remains at the forefront of efforts to strengthen criminal justice systems through 12 projects on legal aid.
With UNODC assistance, countries are making progress in establishing stronger legal and policy frameworks worldwide.
A joint UNDP-UNODC study conducted in 2016 found that 125 surveyed countries had incorporated legal aid into their national legislation.
As we look ahead, maintaining such progress is key to achieving the promise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to “leave no one behind”.
Women are at particular risk of being left behind.
Women offenders face specific vulnerabilities in detention facilities and prisons, where they are at high risk of harm.
Women may also lack access to family funds to pay for a lawyer, while survivors of sexual gender-based violence are frequently stigmatized or too afraid to testify.
Access to legal aid can help remedy this.
Together with UN Women, UNODC implemented a joint project from 2018 to 2021 to enhance access to legal aid for women in West Africa.
The project provided training to over 1,200 women through community-based legal education.
In Liberia, 718 women were released from prison and reintegrated into their communities after human rights violations identified by legal aid providers were addressed.
Elsewhere, in Pakistan, between 2017 and 2021, we helped increase access to justice for 522 prisoners facing trial, including women, young and the elderly, minorities, and persons with disabilities.
This work also continued throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, during which State resources were diverted to more pressing issues.
UNODC provided remote support and scaled up operations to respond to increased demands caused by lockdowns.
This assistance was vital for women who were at greater risk of domestic violence.
While we have come a long way in the past decade, challenges remain across all regions.
Too many countries have yet to enact specific legislation on the right to legal aid.
Among those that do recognize this right, they often lack the resources or capacity to provide it, especially in least developing countries.
Far too often, the poor and the marginalized, as well as women, children, persons with disabilities, migrants, and minorities, are unable to seek redress, make their voices heard, or defend their rights in the criminal justice system.
Barriers to justice reinforce poverty and exclusion, and negatively impact the economy.
This leads to greater social divisions and inequalities, in turn reinforcing the cycle of injustice.
We must do more to ensure that countries provide nationwide access to legal aid services, especially for those living in rural areas, where access to lawyers and legal services is more limited than in urban areas.
We must also ensure closer coordination between legal aid providers and justice and other law enforcement actors.
This would allow for continued and safe delivery of legal aid, including during times of emergency, such as we saw during the pandemic.
States must allocate more resources through targeted and evidence-based budgeting, in order to increase sustainability and local ownership of reforms.
Legal aid must not be provided solely by NGOs or pro bono services.
We therefore need to strengthen partnerships with civil society and other non-State actors in complementing the state delivery of legal aid services.
This includes working with community paralegals, university-based legal clinics, or private sector initiatives.
We must also harness the benefits of digital innovations, using technology to develop new ways of delivering legal aid, including remote court hearings, as was needed during the pandemic.
UNODC, with its expertise, knowledge, and partnerships with national stakeholders and other actors, is well placed to provide support to Member States on legal aid and criminal justice reform.
I look forward to continuing this important work later this year, as we prepare to launch a new e-learning tool on enhancing the quality of legal aid services.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I would like to thank the Chair of the CCPCJ, Ambassador Mary Mugwanja, for organizing this timely event, as we begin a year that will see access to justice and legal aid remain high on the agenda.
I am pleased that a special event has been dedicated to this topic at the upcoming session of the CCPCJ, and I look forward to the debate on access to justice at the General Assembly later this year.
This will set the ground as we look to the next 10 years.
Together, we can and must do more to ensure free and fair access to justice for all, in all regions and countries.