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Access to justice
Speeches and Discussions

To prevent conflict, states must deliver access to justice

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Mary Robinson addresses the G7+ Ministerial-level meeting at The Hague, on 20 June 2019. (Photo: @G7plus)

Noting the transformative role played by access to justice in securing peaceful, stable and legitimate states, Mary Robinson calls for innovation, increased financing and improved collaboration to build inclusive, people-centred justice systems that deliver justice for all.


This speech was delivered at the G7+ Ministerial Meeting on Access to Justice for All in Conflict-Affected Countries, at The Hague on 20 June 2019.


Excellency, Ministers, Ladies and Gentlemen, Friends, it is an honour to be here for this important meeting.

Thank you Minister Kaag for your words and for the strong leadership role The Netherlands is playing in promoting access to justice for all on the global stage. The Hague is not just a city of peace and justice in name alone, but is truly investing in making those fundamental values a reality.

We say that justice is blind, but we cannot be blind to the challenges of ensuring adequate access to justice in conflict-riven countries, nor to the moral imperative of protecting the rights of vulnerable civilians in times of war.

The G7+ is of great importance to me as an inclusive and progressive forum for countries who know the pain of war and the corrosive impact of impunity for abusers. I come from a country that has also borne the scars and savagery of conflict, but is determined that conflict does not define us.

Ireland today is a positive example of how peacebuilding and state-building strategies can lead to a stronger, more robust and confident nation that is actively engaged on the international stage.

One hundred years ago, the great Irish poet WB Yeats wrote furious and agonised verses in response to the brutality of our War of Independence:


“Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare

Rides upon sleep:  a drunken soldiery

Can leave the mother, murdered at her door,

To crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free.”


These lines came back to me when I served as UN Special Envoy to the Great Lakes region in 2013-14. In this role, I came face to face with the impact of conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the devastating toll on people’s lives, particularly women and children.

On several occasions when meeting with civil society in Goma or elsewhere, I would ask the men to leave so that I could listen to the women. Then I would hear stories of such brutality and horror that I could only wonder at their courage and resilience.

The use of sexual violence as a deliberate weapon of war was, and remains, a particularly abhorrent feature of the conflict in the Great Lakes region and so many other conflicts, from Bosnia in the 1990s to South Sudan today.

There is at last a growing understanding of the specific and acute nature of this threat, and better mobilisation by international bodies and national institutions to stamp it out.

Yesterday, 19 June, was the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, and this year marks the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the mandate and office of the UN Special Representative focused on this issue.

Over the past decade, there has been a paradigm shift in the understanding of the scourge of conflict-related sexual violence and its impact on international peace and security, the response required to prevent such crimes and the multidimensional services needed by survivors.

Yet despite this shift, more sustained efforts are required from all stakeholders to recognise and tackle gender inequality as the root cause and driver of sexual violence, including in times of war and peace, and to promote a survivor-centred approach that respects the rights, dignity and privacy of women and other victims of abuse.

None of this will be possible without access to justice for all.

Lack of justice can itself be a driving force of conflict. Injustice undermines state legitimacy, threatening social peace and stability. As the Task Force on Justice report identifies, justice plays a fundamental role in prevention of conflict.

Injustice itself is costly. The OECD estimates that countries lose between 0.5 and 3 percent of their GDP due to the costs of seeking justice, lost income, and stress-related illnesses and other health problems. A recent study showed that Ghana lost $18.9 million dollars in 2016 as economic costs of violence against women and girls.

Indeed, justice is a thread that runs through all the UN Sustainable Development Goals and is an essential component in achieving other goals, such as health and education.

The promise of SDG 16 was to put governance at the heart of the world’s development goals. But frankly, there are too few people seriously talking and thinking about how we implement those targets.

This ground-breaking G7+ justice ministerial meeting is an opportunity to take words on paper and turn them into action. Backgrounds of conflict and fragility are not the only common threads that bind G7+ countries.

Resilience, innovation, dedicated civil society actors and creative partnerships are also important qualities that bind these countries together.

Sierra Leone, coming from decades of conflict, and now a global leader championing access to justice, is one such example. I have been inspired by its progressive Legal Aid law which recognises the important role that paralegals and legal empowerment can play, particularly in low resource settings.

It is wonderful to see three women lawyers from Sierra Leone here today (the honourable Minister, and the representatives from Namati and from the Directorate of Science, Technology and Innovation), showing how fundamental it is to have women in the justice sector and leadership roles.

If we are going to achieve Equal Justice for All by 2030, we will need to embrace reform and innovation. As a lawyer, I know that we in the legal profession are not always the most receptive to these aspects but I am confident that the remarkable group we have here today will lead the way in their countries and indeed globally.

We need a people-centred approach to gathering information on the justice needs of people and communities and implementation of justice policies. 

Sustaining a people-centred justice system also requires sustainable financial support. Increased investment in access to justice must come from increases in domestic budget allocations and from expanded international donor commitments to inclusive justice systems.

Above all, we need to stop working in silos and collaborate with Ministers and partners working in other sectors, such as health and education, if we are to realise the holistic model of development set out in the SDGs.

We will need to embrace innovative tools, such as, community-based paralegals, mobile courts, and access to legal information, that have the potential to transform people’s justice journeys and transform individuals and communities into informed, confident users of justice mechanisms.

This meeting is a first concrete step forward, through mutual learning and agreeing common priorities.

I encourage all States to use the High Level Political Forum in New York in July, and the SDG Summit in September to make ambitious commitments on access to justice and to develop national access to justice strategies.

As Chair of The Elders, a group of global leaders brought together by Nelson Mandela, I am constantly inspired by Madiba’s example, his belief in the power of the law to address injustice, and his unceasing determination to fight for a better world for all.

As he said in 2005,

“As long as poverty, injustice, and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest.”

Today, The Elders stand alongside you as you strive boldly to advance access to justice individually and collectively.

We will not rest in our support for greater and smarter investment in justice systems, which can have transformative impacts on societies and help deliver a just, fair and prosperous world for our children and grandchildren.


Thank you.

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