EDITOR’S NOTE: Poor people in the developing world suffer human rights abuse not because of a lack of laws but because these laws are rarely enforced, Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros suggest. Creating an effective public justice system in the developing world should, therefore, be at the top of the human rights movement’s agenda, says Haugen, president and CEO of International Justice Mission, and Boutros, a federal prosecutor in the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice. A few excerpts:

For a poor person in the developing world, the struggle for human rights is not an abstract fight over political freedoms or over the prosecution of large-scale war crimes but a matter of daily survival. It is the struggle to avoid extortion or abuse by local police, the struggle against being forced into slavery or having land stolen, the struggle to avoid being thrown arbitrarily into an overcrowded, disease-ridden jail with little or no prospect of a fair trial. For women and children, it is the struggle not to be assaulted, raped, molested, or forced into the commercial sex trade.

Efforts by the modern human rights movement over the last 60 years have contributed to the criminalization of such abuses in nearly every country. The problem for the poor, however, is that those laws are rarely enforced.Without functioning public justice systems to deliver the protections of the law to the poor, the legal reforms of the modern human rights movement rarely improve the lives of those who need them most. At the same time, this state of functional lawlessness allows corrupt officials and local criminals to block or steal many of the crucial goods and services provided by the international development community. These abuses are both a moral tragedy and wholly counter-productive to the foreign aid programs of countries in the developed world. Helping construct effective public justice systems in the developing world, therefore,must become the new mandate of the human rights movement in the twenty-first century.

Pulling up short

Few, if any, international human rights or development organizations focus on building public justice systems that work for the poor. Although the United Nations, some government agencies, and human rights organizations do important work in calling attention to human rights violations and lobbying for legal reforms, none measures its success by its ability to bring effective law enforcement to local communities in the developing world.

The problem is not that these groups fail to see the dysfunction of public justice systems in the developing world. Indeed, some of their researchers have been meticulously documenting this problem for decades.Why, then, have none of these agencies made the effectiveness of public justice systems a fundamental priority?

First, international human rights and development agencies may fear that building functioning public justice systems in the developing world is impossible.

Second, international human rights and development agencies may sense that larger bodies, such as the United Nations and the World Bank, are already undertaking such efforts. But sustained efforts to develop functioning public justice systems in poor countries have rarely been tried.

Much more money, intellectual effort, professional investment, and political and diplomatic capital have been poured into traditional development activities – fixing health care, distributing food, providing access to water, strengthening financial systems, and so on – than into supporting public justice systems.

When donor countries have invested in law enforcement training in the developing world, they have largely focused on transnational criminal issues, such as narcotics, arms trafficking, and terrorism. Such initiatives largely ignore the daily struggles that stem from the lack of legal protections for the global poor. And the little funding that has supported rule-of-law, anticorruption, and good governance programs has generally focused on reducing the theft or misappropriation of aid dollars or on strengthening legal protections for business and commerce. On those rare occasions when donors have invested in public justice systems with the goal of serving the indigenous public, the investments have been small, isolated, and ineffective.

Caseworkers for the poor

The modern human rights movement must enter into a new era, shifting its focus from legal reform to law enforcement. In other words, the time has come to move human rights from wholesale to retail – to take the human rights promises stored in the warehouses of national law and deliver them to the poor standing in line for justice.

To accomplish this goal, the human rights and development communities will have to restructure themselves to include those with the backgrounds and technical skills to diagnose and repair the ailments of broken public justice systems. Of course, these experts will not come with ready answers or quick solutions – but they will know where to start looking and will recognize what matters and what does not. And given even a small fraction of the time and money that have been devoted to fixing roads, improving health systems, providing clean water, and building schools in developing countries, they will begin to enable the poor to retain the benefits of such development assistance. On behalf of the billions of poor people in this world who are made small under the vast shadow of lawlessness, the time has come to construct a shelter of justice.

Re-published with permission by Foreign Affairs. Visit the original article.

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