And Justice for All: Enforcing Human Rights for the World's Poor

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.
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Hilda reports the rape of her 12-year-old daughter to the local police in a slum in a Latin American metropolis. The officers don't have a car to arrest the suspect and instead instruct the diminutive woman to find the accused -- a physically imposing security guard -- and bring him on foot to the station herself. Halfway around the world, Sriram is held as a forced laborer in a South Asian brick kiln; he would report the abuse, but his owner is a leading local politician. In Africa, when Veronica tells a judge that her brother threatened to kill here while he was illegally seizing her home, he suggests she learn to "get along" with her family.

Efforts by the modern human rights movement over the last 60 years have contributed to the criminalization of violent human rights abuses, including those against Hilda, Sriram, and Veronica, 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. In fact, in much of the world, the poor find that virtually every component of the public justice system -- police, defense lawyers, prosecutors, and courts -- works against, not with, them.

The average poor person in the developing world has probably never met a police officer who is not, at best, corrupt or, at worst, gratuitously brutal. When a poor person comes into contact with the public justice system beyond the police, it is frequently because he or she has been charged with a crime. With incomes for the global poor hovering around $1-$2 a day, the average poor person cannot hope to pay legal fees -- and will likely never even meet a lawyer.

Even when cases are reported and referred for trial, there are frequently too few public prosecutors to handle the volume. This creates an enormous backlog, allowing cases to languish indefinitely. Some experts, for example, have estimated that at the current rate, it would take 350 years for the courts in Mumbai, India, to hear all the cases on their books. According to the UN Development Program, someone who is detained while awaiting trial in India often serves more than the maximum length of his or her prospective sentence before a trial date is set.

The modern human rights movement began in the years following World War II, when a number of scholars and diplomats began an effort to articulate and codify international standards on fundamental rights in documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the following decades, these standards were embedded into national law by individual governments throughout the developing world.

The tragic irony, however, is that the enforcement of these political, civil, economic, and human rights was left to utterly dysfunctional national law enforcement institutions, which were developed during the colonial era to serve the elites and appropriated -- with little change -- by authoritarian governments at the departure of colonial powers. As a result, these systems have rarely effectively protected the poor -- they were never designed to.

Today few, if any, international human rights or development organizations focus on building public justice systems that work for the poor. And when donors 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.

The modern human rights movement must enter into a new era, shifting its focus from legal reform to law enforcement. On the local level, approaches must focus on directly cultivating the political will and capacity of the police, prosecutors, and judges who are supposed to enforce the law on behalf of the poor. At the state level, aid must focus on developing both the political will and the capacity of government elites to enforce existing laws.

In places where central and local governments do show a willingness to reform, international agencies should be prepared to help. A promising model is "collaborative casework," in which human rights lawyers and law enforcement professionals work with local officials to bring relief to individual victims of violent abuse and support the prosecution of the perpetrators in the local public justice system. Collaborative casework enables individual rehabilitation and diagnosis and reparation of the systemic issues that leave the poor vulnerable to abuse. It is a solution both hopeful and real.

We can no longer stand by as billions in this world are daily ravaged by lawlessness. Without functioning public justice systems we will never make human rights meaningful and international development sustainable.

A longer version of this article can be found on

Gary Haugen is President and CEO of International Justice Mission, a human rights agency that secures justice for victims of slavery, sexual exploitation and other forms of violent oppression. Victor Boutros is a federal prosecutor in the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice. Both are lecturers at the University of Chicago Law School. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not purport to represent the official position or policies of the United States Department of Justice.

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