Aiming to deliver justice for all

Guatemalan 1992 Nobel Peace Prize Rigoberta Menchu showing a placard against corruption (break corruption chain) during events marking the International Anti-Corruption Day in Guatemala city on Dec 9, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

"Who needs a lawyer when you can bribe a judge?"

It is not unusual to hear this refrain from people in a number of societies across Asia and the Pacific, and it is hard to comprehend how to turn this problem around.

Examples of corruption and bribery abound across the world, and the judiciary is perceived by people as the most corruption-prone sector after the police. According to Transparency International's (TI) 2013 Global Corruption Barometer, on average, one out of four respondents had paid a bribe to the judiciary within the preceding 12 months.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which marked Anti-corruption Day yesterday, does work in many countries and has found that one of the most common bottlenecks lies within the judiciary. It is one of the most difficult problems to overcome, because if those who are supposed to uphold the rule of law are corrupt, there is often no room for remedy. Despite repeated efforts to strengthen judicial systems across the region, corruption remains an intractable problem.

When corruption occurs in institutions of justice, it undermines principles of fairness and due process of the law. It also erodes public confidence about whether judicial outcomes are just, and are made without undue pressure or influence from the outside. When this perception becomes commonplace, it can weaken public trust in government. Corruption in the judiciary also disproportionately impacts access to justice for the poor and marginalised, because often they cannot afford to pay bribes or gain access to influential networks.

According to surveys done by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) across Asia and the Pacific, bribery is not only common but it also hits the poorest the hardest. For instance, in some countries it can cost individuals up to a quarter of their average annual income.

Despite some laudable efforts with the Judicial Integrity Group to tackle the issue, the implementation of the Bangalore Principles of Judicial Conduct - that set standards of conduct for judges - remains a major challenge. Too often, under the facade of independence, corrupt judges remain untouched. This is a dilemma that is hard to solve - balancing legitimate concerns for independence of the judiciary while keeping it accountable in case of abuse.

But it doesn't have to be that way, and change is possible in judicial systems not only in Asia and the Pacific but also across the world. In fact, according to this year's World Justice Project Rule of Index, some countries in this region - namely New Zealand, Singapore and Australia - are among the top 10 performers at the global level for ensuring the rule of law and controlling corruption.

The recently approved 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development provides momentum to help promote justice, defend human rights, and reduce corruption. It provides renewed impetus to reach everyone by trying to ensure justice for all.

The goal includes key targets for providing access to justice, and building effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels, while also tackling corruption.

The challenge for the international community is how to implement policies and programmes to carry this agenda forward.

But, there are also other tools that can contribute to making a difference. UNDP and the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre are drafting a report titled: A Transparent And Accountable Judiciary To Deliver Justice For All. It explores how judicial reform has been tackled in different parts of the world using innovative approaches.

The report cites how the NGO, Integrity Watch Afghanistan, has used citizens in certain provinces to monitor trials, to ensure integrity and accountability. This has resulted in marked improvement in the administration of justice.

In Indonesia, people can now go online to easily access court documents and statistics on judgments, eliminating bureaucracy and increasing transparency.

Last but not least, the report calls on members of the judiciary to undertake assessments to strengthen institutional integrity and effectiveness.

For instance, it calls on chief justices to go beyond a principle-based approach and open up their institutions to peers from across the region to illustrate transparency and accountability. By undertaking such assessments involving members of the judiciary from other countries, they will help develop capacities of their own institutions, as well as build public trust.

As an anchor of the integrity infrastructure in countries, the judiciary has a vital role to play.

The goal of the report is to try to transform judicial systems across the world, by illustrating experiences that are innovative and inspirational that countries can adopt to deliver justice for all.

•The writer is UNDP's Deputy Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific and Director of the Bangkok Regional Hub.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 10, 2015, with the headline 'Aiming to deliver justice for all'. Subscribe