Over 900 million people live in extreme poverty. Half of these are children. The United Nations Agenda on Sustainable Development purports to draw children out of poverty cycles and trigger their human development. What part can the legal community play in this UN-driven project?
The development agenda and access to justice for children
Following up on the development goals agreed by the international community in 2000, in September 2015 the General Assembly adopted a new development Agenda, for the next fifteen years. The Post-2015 Agenda contains 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) intended to meet the needs of the world’s poorest. Importantly, the Agenda recognizes that justice systems can be powerful tools in breaking up the cycle of poverty and it includes law and justice (Goal 16) among the essential ingredients of sustainable development and poverty eradication.
The Agenda also acknowledges that “children and young women and men are critical agents of change” and predicts that the SDGs will provide a platform to channel their infinite capacities. Indeed, child poverty is not just about lack of economic resources: it involves lack of access to opportunities that would trigger development, lack of security, and lack of protection from risks and vulnerability. Therefore, access to justice is of core importance for the protection of children’s rights, especially protection from discrimination, violence, abuse and exploitation and for ensuring their best interest in all actions involving them.
How to assess benefits for children? The importance of measuring progress in the delivery of the Agenda
The Agenda comprises commitments aimed at offsetting the detrimental effects of poverty on children and empowering them in the context of sustainable development. Although the commitments are voluntary and aspirational, a number of procedures for follow-up and review are specified, including the development of global and national indicators capable of gauging progress towards the realisation of the goals. The indicator framework, thus introduces a concrete mechanism to measure progress, based on political and civic peer-pressure for holding governments to account. The follow-up mechanisms place the emphasis on the measurement of outcomes and the concrete impact of reforms, policies and programmes on individuals.
As such, the Agenda has a very strong potential to bringing positive changes in the alleviation of child poverty and in making children’s access to justice and rights a reality. The extent to which the aspirational vision of the goals will be achieved in practice, however, is highly dependent on the identification of global and national indicators that capture the essence of the goals and are meaningful to measuring progress. There are a number of good indicators for measuring progress in the achievement of Goal 16 in relation to children that have been currently identified at the global level. These include measuring levels of violent discipline used on children, birth registrations, victims of human trafficking and sexual violence and crime reporting rates. Additional indicators are being developed at national levels to reflect the specific needs and challenges.
Five ways the legal community can help deliver the SDGs
The SDGs have the potential to make important contributions to the empowerment of children in the context of eradication of poverty and sustainable development. Access to justice in Goal 16 provides a unique opportunity for the realisation of the benefits of the Agenda for children, by ensuring that they are better assisted and protected by justice systems, and by strengthening the rule of law efforts regarding justice for children and full respect of their rights.
There are at least five important pathways through which lawyers involved in advocacy, law reform, drafting of new legislation, legal education and in providing legal assistance and representation can make a uniquely useful contribution to the delivery of the Agenda. They can do so by:
- Helping place the SDGs in a legal context, both by contributing to a better understanding of the legal significance of the SDGs framework, and by bringing the goals’ language, overall vision and general principles in legislative processed and in legal arguments in the case law. The legal community has competence, expertise and the tools to identify and address poverty and development challenges where law is either part of the cause or part of the solution.
- Playing a key role in promoting legal interpretations on the correct implementation of existing laws that reflect and are inspired by sustainability concerns.
- Informing the understanding of legal concepts involved in data collection and promoting evidence-based policy reforms.
- Contributing to the legal empowerment of the most vulnerable through legal assistance and representation in their day-to-day work.
- Providing legal support and technical assistance to governments and civil society organisations aimed at strengthening the understanding of the importance of legal frameworks in the context of sustainable development.
It is time for the legal community to recognize its role in the fight against poverty and be proactive in the delivery of the objectives of the Agenda for sustainable development.
These issues are more broadly addressed in a briefing paper recently published by the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law: Children and Access to Justice in the Agenda for Sustainable Development