An Open Letter to the UN


Civil society’s letter to the UN

In 2015, the future of global development was decided. To build a better world, justice had to be included in the Sustainable Development Goals.

At the United Nations, member countries discussed the goals and targets that would shape global development for years to come. If the new framework failed to empower people to understand and use the law, billions would be left behind. More than 260 organizations came together to urge governments to adopt a development agenda that spreads justice, legal empowerment and the rule of law. They succeeded.

Justice 2015 Campaign Resources

Download the open letter

A PDF version of our appeal to the UN

Download the Open Letter

Where Justice Stands

An analysis of Ban Ki-moon’s Synthesis Report

Read the Analysis

A Factsheet on Justice

Why Justice Matters to Development

Download the factsheet

Appeal to the Member States of the United Nations

 Justice Should be Included in the Post-2015 Development Goals

We, the undersigned, submit this respectful yet urgent call to the Member States of the United Nations to declare now that justice, the rule of law, and legal empowerment are essential principles in the new global development framework.

Around the world, billions of people live without the full protection of the law.  They are unfairly driven from their land, denied essential services, extorted by officials, excluded from society, and intimidated by violence.  Their lack of legal protection is a source of repression and an affront to human dignity.

Legal empowerment means giving all people the power to understand and use the law to secure justice and meet basic needs.  

In the decades since the 1950s, when paralegals in South Africa began helping an oppressed people resist apartheid, legal empowerment has challenged systems and traditions that entrench inequality and has grown into a global movement.  Today, grassroots legal advocates in the Philippines are helping farmers participate in nationwide agrarian reforms.  In Argentina, shantytown residents are pursuing legal remedies to bring clean water and other essential services to their communities.  Similar endeavors, some of great scope, some modest, are unfolding worldwide.

For legal empowerment to succeed, individuals must live in societies dedicated to justice and governed by the rule of law.  The rule of law is defined by three principles: First, the law is superior to, and thus binds, the government and all its officials.  Second, the law must respect and preserve the dignity, equality, and human rights of all persons.  To these ends, the law must establish and safeguard constitutional structures necessary to build a free society in which all citizens have a meaningful voice in shaping and enacting the rules that govern them.  Finally, the law must devise and maintain systems to advise all persons of their rights, and it must empower them to fulfill just expectations and seek redress of grievances without fear of retaliation.

Where legal empowerment efforts take hold, the results are visible and quantifiable.  Women in Bangladesh who challenge the practice of illegal dowries are reporting greater cash savings.  Due to the work of community-based paralegals, grievances in Liberia are being resolved more equitably, resulting in greater food security. Prisoners in Kenya have returned to jobs and families after successfully appealing their sentences.

Affirming that justice, the rule of law, and legal empowerment belong in the framework for global development requires no great shift.  The United Nations and many member states have already recognized the importance of the rule of law and legal empowerment in the UN Millennium Declaration, in the findings of the Commission on the Legal Empowerment of the Poor (CLEP), and in two General Assembly resolutions.  Additionally, the UN Development Programme, the World Bank, and UN Women all support legal empowerment programs in many parts of the world.  The Global Legal Empowerment Network was formed in 2010 to implement the CLEP’s goal of using legal empowerment to advance development.  As members and allies of that network, we advocate a post-2015 agenda with justice, the rule of law, and legal empowerment as its guiding principles.

The Report of the High Level Panel of Eminent Persons (HLP) on the Post-2015 Development Agenda places strong emphasis on justice and the rule of law in recognition that these principles not only “help drive development,” but also “have their own intrinsic value.”  The HLP report offers a platform on which the world should build.  By concentrating on five priorities—access to information, legal identity, rights to land and property, legal participation, and legal services—the new framework can ensure that no one is left behind.


The Five Priorities

1. Access to Information:  People should know about the laws and regulations that govern their lives, particularly those concerning essential services.  States should commit to disseminating simple and clear statements of law and policy.  They should also grant people an enforceable right to information to ensure that laws and regulations are implemented effectively.

Illustrative Target: Guarantee the public’s right to information and to access government data.

2. Legal Identity:  Without state-issued identity documents, individuals may not be able to open a bank account, obtain a mobile phone, or secure the goods and services necessary to work and save for their families and their future.  Government should ensure that access to legal identity is universal.

Illustrative Target: Ensure no one suffers from a lack of secure legal identity.

3. Rights to Land and Property:  Approximately three billion people around the world live without secure rights to what are often their greatest assets: their lands, forests, and pastures.  Increasing demand for land is leading to exploitation and conflict.  Giving communities the power to manage their land and natural resources would reduce poverty and promote sustainable development.  Securing property rights for all individuals, including women, is necessary to improve financial stability and personal safety.

Illustrative Targets:

Increase the share of women and men with secure rights to land and property.

Increase the amount of land for which communities have secure tenure and decisions are taken through an open and accountable process.

4. Legal Participation:  All persons are entitled to shape the laws and policies that affect their lives.  Just as communities should govern their land and natural resources, people should have a voice in how services like healthcare and education are delivered.  Participation should not be limited to elections every few years.  Citizens must have a role in shaping the fundamental, everyday work of their governments, which in turn have a duty to operate transparently and respond to the needs of their citizens.

Illustrative Target: Ensure the participation of citizens in monitoring essential services, including water, healthcare, and education.

5. Legal Services:  Everyone should have access to fair, effective forums for resolving conflicts, for seeking protection from violence, and for addressing grievances with the state.  Equitable administration of justice requires quality services from a broad range of institutions, including the police, the courts, administrative tribunals, ombudsmen, and customary authorities.

For people to have a fair shot when they approach those institutions, they need access to affordable legal aid services.  Creative legal aid efforts, such as those that combine a small corps of public interest lawyers with a larger frontline of community paralegals, can seek effective solutions and engage the full range of justice institutions.

Illustrative Target: Ensure all people have access to justice institutions and legal aid services that are affordable, fair, and timely.

Civil society has a vital role in realizing all five of these goals. Public interest lawyers, paralegals, and other civil society actors have proven effective in helping people understand and use the law.  In Jordan, advocates work with migrant women to recover salaries and passports unlawfully withheld by their employers.  In Uganda, community based paralegals help communities to document their customary land claims, taking advantage of laws that were on the books but seldom used.

The new development framework offers an opportunity to scale up civil society legal empowerment efforts.  Governments can provide financing via autonomous bodies like ombudsman offices or public legal aid boards if the bodies genuinely respect civil society independence.  Additional funding can and should come from international development agencies and foundations, as well as from client fees and contributions, however small, from those who receive legal services.  A global fund for legal empowerment, moreover, could create a channel for multilateral cooperation.

There are practical ways to measure progress towards justice, and governments are making great strides in doing so.  Ministries of justice already gather data on case volume and duration. National statistics offices often include questions about legal knowledge and legal access in their surveys.

But we can do even more.  The High Level Panel calls for a data revolution driven by the new development framework.  This opportunity must be seized to enhance data collection and analysis.  Indicators can draw on diverse sources and can be adapted to country context.  Data disaggregated by gender, ethnicity, and class can help governments to concentrate development efforts on those who need them most.

This opportunity to pursue what is right must be grasped.  Deprivation cannot be defeated, nor can the threat of dispossession and exploitation be lifted, without legal empowerment.  The world must know at once the urgency of its own survival.  Respect for life and human dignity must be a common belief; tolerance must be a common bond; and law and justice must be a common purpose.  We, the undersigned, thus call on the Member States of the United Nations to proclaim that justice, the rule of law, and legal empowerment belong in the new global development framework.  The need is urgent.  The potential is historic.



  • Sir Fazle Abed, Founder and Chairperson, BRAC, Bangladesh
    Madeline Albright, Former U.S. Secretary of State, USA
    Lloyd Axworthy, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Canada
    Fernando Cardoso, Former President of Brazil
    Prince el-Hassan bin Talal, Jordan
    Hernando de Soto, Institute for Liberty and Democracy, Peru
    Mo Ibrahim, founder and chair, Mo Ibrahim Foundation
    Justice Anthony Kennedy, U.S. Supreme Court, USA
    Mary Robinson, Former President of Ireland
    George Soros, Founder and Chairman, Open Society Foundations
    Ernesto Zedillo, Former President of Mexico
    Jimmy Carter, Former President of the United States
    Erna Witolaer, Former Minister of Human Settlements and Regional Development, Indonesia
    The Most Reverend Desmond M. Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, South Africa
    Peter Gabriel, Musician and Activist, United Kingdom
    Lakhdar Brahimi, Former UN Special Envoy to Syria, Algeria
    Luciana Bercovich, Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y la Justicia, Argentina
    Maja Daruwala, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, India
    Angote Gertrude, Kituo cha Sheria, Centre for Legal Empowerment, Kenya
    Steve Golub, School of Law, University of California, Berkeley, USA
    Nadejda Hriptievschi, Legal Resources Centre, Moldova
    Diala Khamra, Justice Center for Legal Aid, Jordan
    Simeon Koroma, Timap for Justice, Sierra Leone
    Marlon Manuel, Alternative Law Groups, Philippines
    Nomboniso Maqubela, National Alliance for the Dev’t of Community Advice Offices, South Africa
    Vivek Maru, Namati
    David McQuoid Mason, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
    Clifford Msiska, Paralegal Advisory Service Institute, Malawi
    Manolo Morales, ECOLEX, Ecuador
    Faustina Pereira, BRAC, Bangladesh
    Uli Sihombing, Indonesian Legal Resource Center, Indonesia
    Zhang Wanhong, Wuhan University School of Law, China
    Virak Yeng, Community Legal Education Center, Cambodia
    Justice and Empowerment Initiatives, Nigeria
    Pro Bono Net, United States
    National Center for Access to Justice, United States
    California Institute for Rural Studies, United States
    Solidarity Community Care Organization, Namibia
    Legal Resources Foundation, Zambia
    Institute for Environment and Welfare, Albania
    Centre for Policy Advocacy and Leadership Development, Nigeria
    Integrated Development Foundation, Nepal
    Comunita di Visignano d’Istria in Esilio, Italy
    SpringAid International Development, Nigeria
    Institut Panafricain de Droit de la Femme, Democratic Republic of Congo
    Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, United States
    New Haven Urban Design League, United States
    Afghan Women’s Project, United States
    Les Ambassadeurs de l’Environnement, France
    Albinism Foundation of East Africa, Kenya
    Penal Reform International, The Netherlands
    African Centre for Justice Innovation, South Africa
    Auero Anello Associazione, Italy
    Tashabbus, Uzbekistan
    Brandeis University- Sustainable International Development Program, United States
    EPAS Association, Romania
    Centro de la Mujer Panameña, Panama
    ARDD Legal Aid, Jordan
    Universal Rights Network, Australia
    Resource Link Foundation, Ghana
    Oxford Lawyers Without Borders, United Kingdom
    Baghdad Women Association, Iraq
    The Lebanese Council to Resist Violence Against Women, Lebanon
    Penal Reform International – MENA Region, Jordan
    Salud por Derecho, Spain
    Women Empowerment Organization, Iraq
    Association “Vasa prava BiH”, Bosnia and Herzegovina
    Monitoring Committee of Penal Reform and Human Rights, Kazakhstan
    Tamkeen Fields for Aid, Jordan
    Protimos, South Africa
    AID Uganda, Uganda
    LBH Masyarakat, Indonesia
    Initiatives for Positive Change, Liberia
    Soros Foundation-Moldova, Moldova
    Human Rights Center Somaliland, Somalia
    Center for Environment and Development (CED), Cameroon
    Legal Assistance Center, Sierra Leone
    CINEP, Colombia
    ARDD-LegalAid, Jordan
    EdLawCourses, Canada
    Dynamique Synergie des Femmes ( DSF ), Democratic Republic of the Congo
    Kenya Land Alliance, Kenya
    Leandra Community Centre, South Africa
    LIPRODHOR, Rwanda
    Transparency International Sierra Leone, Sierra Leone
    World Justice Project, United States
    Women Initiative For Peace And Good Governance, Afghanistan
  • Kontras, Indonesia
    Alliance for Social Dialogue, Nepal
    CEEAD, A.C., Mexico
    Centre for Accountability and the Rule of Law, Sierra Leone
    Human Rights Center, Somaliland
    Mankind’s Activities for Development Accreditation Movement, Sierra Leone
    Sierra Leone Network on the Right to Food, Sierra Leone
    PAIIS- Universidad de los Andes, Colombia
    IDIP Institute for the Defence of Public Interest, Mexico
    Prison Fellowship Liberia, Liberia
    Network of Human Rights Journalists- The Gambia, Gambia
    McCandless Tramley, Canada
    Ateneo Human Rights Center, The Philippines
    Centre for Access to Justice, Peace, and Human Rights, Sierra Leone
    Institute for Justice in Africa, United Kingdom
    Omilero International, Nigeria
    Ntsu Community Legal Advice Office, South Africa
    Namibia Paralegal Association, Namibia
    Justice for All Organization, Afghanistan
    Interchurch Advice Office, South Africa
    Legal Action for Persons with Disabilities Uganda, Uganda
    Humanist Watch Salone, Sierra Leone
    Justice and Peace Commission, Sierra Leone
    The African Youth in Technology Organization, South Africa
    Corruption Brakes Crusade, Uganda
    International Human Rights Commission, The Netherlands
    Alianza de Derecho Ambiental y Agua, Guatemala
    Mbororo Social and Cultural Development Association, Cameroon
    SWEAT Development Programme, Tanzania
    Network Movement for Justice and Development, Afghanistan
    Network Movement for Youth and Children’s Welfare, Sierra Leone
    Ju/’hoan Transcription Group, Namibia
    Leandra Community Centre, South Africa
    Law and Society Trust, Sri Lanka
    Network of University Legal Aid Institutions, Nigeria
    World Future Council, Germany
    Maliasili Initiatives, United States
    Job Justice Institute, South Africa
    Human Rights First Rwanda Association, Rwanda
    Women Development Response Agency, Kenya
    Letsopa Advice Centre, South Africa
    Vision for Learning and Peace, Sudan
    Bar Hostess Empowerment and Support Programe, Kenya
    Basilwizi Trust, Zimbabwe
    The Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance, Egypt
    Paralegal Alliance Network, Zambia
    PROTECT SL, Sierra Leone
    Black Sash, South Africa
    Kamukunji Community Based Organizations Network, Kenya
    Centre for Community Economics and Development Consultants Society, India
    Centre for Participatory Learning, India
    Yayasan Lembaga Bantuan Hukum Indonesia, Indonesia
    Legal Aid Clinic- School of Law- University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
    International NGO Forum on Indonesian Development, Indonesia
    Patriot Legal Aid Foundation, Indonesia
    Community Resource Centre, Thailand
    Laboratório de Estudos, Pesquisas e Extensão sobre Condições de Vida e Direitos Humanos na Bahia, Brazil
    Justice Without Frontiers, Lebanon
    AdvocAid, Sierra Leone
    Madaripur Legal Aid Association, Bangladesh
    Association of the Egyptian Female Lawyers, Egypt
    Land and Development Solutions International, United States
    The Serious Work Association, Egypt
    Egyptian Association for Legal Development, Egypt
    Network of University Legal Aid Institutions, Nigeria
    Safeplan Uganda, Uganda
    Advocacy Forum, Nepal
    Consortium for Land Research and Policy Dialogue, Nepal
    Media for Development and Social Change, Nepal
    Christworld’s Justice & Protection Missions Ministry Inc., Philippines
    People Land and Rural Development Consultants, Kenya
    Autopromotion pour un Développement Humain Durable, Togo
    Positive Peace Group, Cameroon
    STAR Kampuchea, Cambodia
    Child Rights International Network, UK
    Terblanche Paralegal Services, South Africa
    Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, USA
    Democratic Commission for Human Development, Pakistan
    Accountability Lab, United States
    Alliances for Africa, Afghanistan
    The Brook Advocates Limited, United Kingdom
    International Justice Center for Post-Graduate development, United States
    Natural Justice: Lawyers for Communities and the Environment, South Africa
    ANSA-Arab World, Tunisia
    MIRTH Bangladesh, Bangladesh
    Forum for Legal Assistance(FOLEA), Tanzania
    African Law Foundation (AFRILAW), Nigeria
    International Human Rights Commission, Netherlands
    HRWG-Indonesia, Indonesia
    Waka Rural Development Initiative, Nigeria
    Justice & Empowerment Initiatives, Nigeria
    Universal Justice Advocates, Netherlands
    Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, United States
  • Arhebis Digital Systems, Romania
    The Ubuntu Centre, South Africa
    Centro Terra Viva-CTV, Mozambique
    Women’s Legal Centre, South Africa
    Lawyers’ National Campaign for Elimination of Caste Discrimination, Nepal
    Osafric Water Energy And Agricultural Conservation, Kenya
    Global Zomi Alliance, Myanmar
    Centre For Enhancing Democracy And Good Governance, Kenya
    CSO Network, Kenya
    Advocates for International Development, United Kingdom
    Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, United Kingdom
    Center for Economic and Social Rights, USA
    Kojain, USA
    Global Rights: Partners for Justice, USA
    Shenzhen Xiyan Communication Centre, China
    WANA Forum, Jordan
    Kenya Land Alliance, Kenya
    Envision Consulting Group, Jordan
    The Gulf Foundation, Netherlands
    Integrated Smart Technologies, Oman
    Regional Institute of Policy Research Training, Peshawar, Pakistan
    World Energy Council, Jordan
    Democracy and Workers’s Rights Center in Palestine, OPT
    Palestinian Hydrology Group, OPT
    Palestinian Environmental NGO Network
    FOE Palestine, OPT
    Arab Women Organization, Jordan
    Rural Support Programmes Network, Pakistan
    Avocats Sans Frontières, Belgium
    Lebanese Women Democratic Gathering, Lebanon
    Law and Development Association, Zambia
    RRA Thinktank, Columbia
    CIVISOL Foundation for Systemic Change, Columbia
    Association of Egyptian Female Lawyers (AEFL), Egypt
    Midnight Blue, Hong Kong
    3BL Associates, Bahrain
    International Senior Lawyers Project, United Kingdom
    Norwegian Refugee Council, Norway
    Freedom Now, USA
    Fair Trials International, United Kingdom
    KEY, Bangladesh
    HiiL – Innovating Justice, Netherlands
    Centre for Youth Care and Human Rights Awareness, Nigeria
    Asuda for Combating Violence Against Women, Iraq
    Hotoro Women Development Association (HOWDA), Nigeria
    The Foundation of Local Democracy, Bosmia & Herzegovina
    Center for Civil Society Development in Bosnia and Herzegovina (CRCDBIH), Bosnia & Herzegovina
    The Kenyan Section of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ Kenya), Kenya
    Justice and Women, Afghanistan
    The Coalition Factory, Netherlands
    Street Law South Africa, South Africa
    Pro Igual, Spain
    Corruption Brakes (Cobra) Crusade, Uganda
    Association Tchadienne pour la Promotion et la Défense des Droits de l’Homme (ATPDH), Chad
    Center for Political Ecology, USA
    Voices Against Corruption, USA
    APIK – Indonesian Women’s Association for Justice, Indonesia
    Maksat Chambers, Nigeria
    International Human Rights Commission, Netherlands
    Bangladesh Legal Aid & Services Trust (BLAST), Bangladesh
    Community Empowerment for Progress Organization (CEPO), South Sudan
    Construisons Ensemble le Monde, Democratic Republic of the Congo
    Just Peace Initatives, Pakistan
    Association for Democratic Initiatives, Bosnia & Herzegovina
    Women to Women, Bosnia & Herzegovina
    Prava za sve (Rights for All), Bosnia & Herzegovina
    Sarhad Rural Support Programme (SRSP), Pakistan
    WILDAF/Mali, Afghanistan
    Jindal School of Government and Public Policy, India
    Center to Assist and Protect Child Rights of Nepal, Nepal
    Transitional Justice Resource Center, Nepal
    Sustainable Development Institute, Liberia
    Indira Gandhi Integral Education Centre, India
    Institute for Justice in Africa,United Kingdom
    Alianza de Derecho Ambiental y Agua, Guatemala
    PHALS, Bangladesh
    Centre for Social Justice, India
    Network Movement for Justice and Development, Sierra Leone
    Humanist Watch Salone, Sierra Leone
    Sustainable Law Institute, United Kingdom