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For the closing plenary of the World Justice Forum on 2 June 2022, Mary Robinson affirms the need for inclusive, people-centered justice systems in order to make access to justice for all a reality.

Read Mary Robinson's speech

Good afternoon, everyone.

It has been an honour to attend this year’s World Justice Forum, and I am grateful to everyone I have learned from here. The insightful and reflective conversations and the productive working sessions have shown us how much there is to do until our world is fair and just, but have also highlighted the innovative solutions that can make a better future possible.

The combined challenges and impacts of war in Ukraine, the continuing COVID-19 pandemic and the ever-present climate crisis can appear daunting, but we should never lose sight of the fact that there is an internationally-agreed roadmap that, if followed with political vision and courage, can deliver a fairer, more just and peaceful world.

In 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals were agreed upon by a record-breaking number of governments around the world. Goal 16, for ‘peace, justice and strong institutions’, commits to the provision of access to justice for all. Access to justice is one of the most fundamental of rights that we have. Without it our other rights are chimerical.

Despite this political undertaking by heads of state, the justice gap remains dangerously wide 7 years later. And it’s clear that as we edge closer to the SDG deadline of 2030, we are not on track.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic showed us just how dangerous a lack of justice and equality can be when lockdowns placed women, girls and those marginalised by society at particular risk of violence and plunged millions into poverty. But the pandemic cannot be used as an excuse for a lack of progress on SDG 16. Back in 2019, we were already well off-course to meeting this vital goal: a landmark report by the World Justice Project found that 5.1 billion people around the world lived outside the protection of the law.

Yet, while COVID-19 acted as an exposer and multiplier of existing injustices, this global crisis also revealed a new kind of legitimacy in activities rooted in issues of direct concern to local communities. For example, in Tunisia women’s groups formed to lobby courts to hear gender-based violence cases; in Brazil many workers were put at such risk during the pandemic that it spurred a heightened focus on workers’ rights and calls for reform from civil society; and for millions worldwide, the murder of George Floyd in the United States in May 2020 was a stark imperative to confront the pervasiveness of systemic racial injustice. We must applaud those dedicated to calling out unjust systems – often at great personal risk.

I have had the privilege of hearing from visionary justice leaders during this forum including: the Young Justice Leaders; grassroots rights defenders; governments championing people-centred justice for all as part of the Justice Action Coalition; and justice professionals who have resolutely decided the status quo is not good enough! Young people are not an optional extra in this future we must forge together, and we must include all voices – especially the most marginalised – in charting a way forward.

A personal learning curve for me over the pandemic was becoming more au fait with technology. Like most of you, I have ‘Zoomed,’ ‘Teamed,’ ‘Skyped’ and ‘webinared’ countless times in the last two years! Technology has been a vital part of the conversation here this week. We must ensure that technology is harnessed ethically to tackle corruption and to provide accessible justice services for all citizens. We have seen some wonderful innovations in the past two years bringing home the moral and very practical need to embrace technology for the good of the people!

As with any global challenge, listening to and championing those most affected by corruption, injustice, and inequality, is essential. For the justice gap to be closed we must create truly inclusive justice systems, driven forwards by people-centred, intergenerational, and intersectional solutions. Corruption is a multiplier of injustices around the world, from war to poverty, and inequality will persist until we take decisive action against it.

Over the years, my work on the urgent fight for climate justice has proven to me just how inextricably linked all forms of injustice are, and that access to justice is crucial to ensuring our collective safe future. Those most affected by the climate crisis frequently lack the legal protections to address its impacts. Climate change is not just an environmental challenge: it is a human rights challenge; it is a rule of law challenge!

There is progress. As the ground-breaking case against Shell, ordered by The Hague District Court to reduce its worldwide CO2 emissions by 45% by 2030, showed us last year, fair and innovative legal systems have a vital role to play in tackling climate change and upholding justice everywhere. But we have more to do. It is incumbent on all of us to embrace the climate justice challenge.

People are drivers of change. That includes all of us here today. Whether we are governmental leaders, donors, civil society campaigners, or now independent Elders like me, each of us has a role to play in tackling corruption and ensuring that people around the world have access to their fundamental human rights of equality and justice.

We are here because of the partnerships we have created, and because we refuse to accept a world which is unfair, unjust, and corrupt. To me, the networks and coalitions we continue to build act as an important reminder that we can only tackle seemingly insurmountable challenges when we listen to each other, and work for each other and for those who cannot be present in this room.

When Nelson Mandela brought The Elders together in 2007, he saw the fostering of hope as a critical part of our mandate. As Chair of The Elders today, I believe that hope – with all the force and power it brings – is the key to change. I leave this forum today feeling energised and inspired. I hope you do too.

Together, we can turn our learning into action and ensure a kinder, fairer, and more just world for all.

Thank you.

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