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Of arson and legal aid: The integration of rule of law in peace and development policy and practice

Court of Appeals of Port au Prince, Haiti
Court of Appeals of Port au Prince, Haiti. Photo: Christian Åhlund 2005


Ahead of the 2017 Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development, SIPRI is pleased to share guest blog posts from partner organizations.


One of the common challenges facing rule of law and development practitioners is the need to bridge theory and practice: to demonstrate how concrete context can and should shape the application and the development of international standards and policy, and how international standards and policy can and should have a transformative potential in concrete contexts. In approaching this challenge, it can sometimes be hard to beat a telling anecdote.

For the International Legal Assistance Consortium (ILAC), a rule of law organization based in Stockholm, a six-year ‘access to justice’ program in Haiti provided many such anecdotes. The project involved a range of activities that built on the findings of a 2005 ILAC assessment report. By 2008, one of these activities had come to fruition, in the form of a new courthouse in the capital, Port au Prince. On the night before its opening, young men from a nearby neighbourhood attempted to burn it down. Caught by the police, they were among the first in line the next day for legal assistance.

In Haiti, as in other countries with a history of authoritarianism and corruption, those needing justice often have the least access to it and harbour distrust for the justice system and other public institutions. In Haiti, such distrust led to an attack on a symbol of the justice system that resulted in a very concrete need for legal aid.


Mainstreaming rule of law in peace and development policy

These events anticipated many of the concerns addressed in the New Deal, an agreement between fragile and conflict-affected states, development partners and civil society developed by the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding (IDPS) and signed in 2011. Signed by over 40 states and organizations, the New Deal defined principles aimed at improving development policy and practice in fragile and conflict-affected states through better prioritization, increased national ownership and inclusivity, and more effective resource management.

Over the past fifteen years, rule of law has become a central plank of both the peacebuilding and development agendas. During that period the g7+, a group of conflict-affected and fragile states, played a crucial role in emphasizing the centrality of the rule of law to the sustainability of peace and development efforts in the development of international agendas like the New Deal and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The New Deal was innovative in its inclusion of a justice pillar that obligated adherents to ‘address injustices and increase people’s access to justice,’ as was SDG 16, which, for the first time, explicitly set out political preconditions necessary for sustainable economic development, obligating all states to:

Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.


Lessons from Haiti

The ILAC program in Haiti was in many respects one of its most successful. Built up slowly from modest beginnings in 2006, the program initially struggled to overcome ingrained distrust between the government and civil society on rule of law issues. A network of rural legal aid offices was in place by 2008 and became a springboard for the development of a national legal aid system (Système national d’assistance légale, SYNAL) that employed 300 Haitians, including 50 lawyers.

Over the course of four years, SYNAL handled 8,000 cases and ensured the release from prison or pre-trial detention of over 5,000 individuals. As noted in ILAC’s 2009 Annual Report, these releases came about ‘either through acquittals by the courts, or by simply showing that numerous inmates were being held without any legal justification.’

Despite its achievements, SYNAL was terminated in 2012 due to lack of donor support. In the years since, significant gains have been made in mainstreaming rule of law across key policy agendas and in raising awareness about the role that effective justice systems play in building and sustaining peace. SYNAL’s closure provides a poignant example of the ongoing importance of identifying and communicating best practice among donors, practitioners and policymakers to ensure that demonstrated approaches are sustained and that future programming benefits from their achievements and lessons learned. 


Incorporating rule of law into peace and development practice

While the inclusion of governance and justice goals in the New Deal and SDGs supports the sustainability of their respective aims, it forces the previously siloed rule of law, peacebuilding and development communities into unknown, shared terrain. For instance, a degree of confusion remains among development actors regarding the implications of the range of ‘SDG 16+’ commitments to peaceful, just and inclusive societies that the 2030 Agenda superimposes onto otherwise conventional categories of development commitments.

Furthermore, while the SDGs’ ‘Agenda 2030’ sets out common goals for all countries regardless of their level of development, conflict-affected and fragile countries remain at risk of being left behind because of the scope and scale of the obstacles they face.  The IDPS emphasized the need to maintain a focus on the most fragile states in the 2016 Stockholm Declaration and its recent conceptual note on reconciling the SDGs and the New Deal, stating ‘the New Deal represents the efforts of some of those who are furthest behind to build a better future for themselves, with the support of the global community.’

The challenges and opportunities of mainstreaming rule of law in global peace and development will be addressed in a session at the upcoming Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development. Co-led by ILAC and the UNDP Oslo Governance Centre, the session aims to identify and analyse good practice from recent experiences in fragile and conflict-affected states. Key takeaways from the Forum session will be further developed at ILAC’s 15th Annual Meeting in Tokyo.


About ILAC: The International Legal Assistance Consortium (ILAC) is an umbrella organization based in Stockholm, Sweden composed of over 50 associations of legal and human rights experts, representing thousands of judges, prosecutors, lawyers and legal academics worldwide. ILAC works together with its member organizations and national partners to promote the rule of law and access to justice in post-conflict, fragile and transitional countries. ILAC is a partner in the 2017 Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development.


Rhodri Williams is a Senior Legal Expert at the International Legal Assistance Consortium (ILAC).