Looking back at this year which has been dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, we can see it not only as a health crisis but also as a human rights and justice crisis. Justice needs are increasing all over the world. We see it in family disputes, an alarming rise in domestic violence, labour disputes, social security benefits and insolvency, among others. Emergency measures taken in response to the pandemic are also creating new problems, as they impact on the rights and liberties, including the right to a fair trial.
Justice systems were unprepared and unable to respond.
What happens to those arrested if courts are closed? Where do we get information about our rights if legal aid is suspended? How and where do we reach out for help in case of domestic violence while in lockdown? The pandemic has created many justice challenges still to be addressed.
Lack of legal aid hampers access to justice for those who need it the most and leaves vulnerable and marginalized groups without a solution. Being safe at home during quarantine is not guaranteed for everyone and gender-based violence has increased during the pandemic. Addressing this surge is of the utmost importance in order to ensure accountability for human rights abuses.
While our work on justice continues in times of the pandemic, Sustainable Development Goal 16—Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions—should be central to long-term recovery. As UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner has said; “It is clear that securing the rule of law and human rights is key to achieving the transformational change we need, based on principles of trust, accountability and justice.”
UNDP country offices are supporting national partners to address situations of emergency and mitigate negative effects of COVID-19 through tailor-made interventions. In Kyrgyzstan legal aid hotlines were set up and legal assistance was provided to persons in border areas through local lawyers. In Lebanon, the Bar Association is providing free legal aid services to survivors of gender-based violence and migrant workers. In Montenegro, the mobile app “Be Safe” was developed to provide assistance to victims of domestic violence. In Serbia, public prosecutors were supported to process cases of domestic violence. In Fiji Empower Pacific, a CSO, was supported to open counselling helplines for COVID-19-related emergencies. In CAR, 3,500 survivors of sexual and gender-based violence received legal aid.
COVID-19 can also be a catalyst for transformation. Justice institutions can adapt to changing circumstances. In Guyana, UNDP is addressing the challenges of vast geographic distances through the use of technology, connecting the central judicial system with communities in remote areas, and provide them with electronic services.
Following the promise of leaving no one behind, people-centred approaches are at the core of our response. Let’s take COVID-19 as an opportunity to rethink our justice systems, use innovation as our ally and provide justice for all.