Stating the Obvious:  Good Governance as a Justice and Health Priority, Dr. Robert Zuber

28 Feb

This week at the UN provided more fodder for policy writing than most weeks, and more than can possibly be summarized in a small space.   From Monday’s extraordinary Operational Activities for Development segment of the Economic and Social Council to late Friday in the Security Council as Special Envoy de Mistura counted down the final moments before the start of the Syria “cessation of hostilities” agreement, the week was diverse, notable and hopeful.

Steady movement towards diplomatic consensus could be seen at high level events this week focused on issues as diverse as the development implications of migration, increasing gender-balanced mediation resources, and motivating more engagement by the full General Assembly membership on peace and security issues, including on our civilian protection responsibilities.  But sometimes it is the smaller events that highlight important linkages we need to pursue further.

Two such events occurred this week, one “off campus” involving medical personnel discussing the spread of the Zika virus and the other at UN Headquarters highlighting the need for additional resources for Legal Aid as one component of state commitments to justice and criminal accountability. The Zika discussion was sponsored in part by Women in International Security whose programming we broadly endorse.  The Legal Aid discussion at the UN was sponsored by Norway, the US, South Africa and the International Legal Foundation (ILF).

While it might not seem so at face value, these two events had some important dimensions in common.  For one thing, the events highlighted the many “pro bono” services both medical and legal professionals offer, often under extremely challenging circumstances, in an attempt to help redress access and resource imbalances and the injustices that often flow from them.  Indeed, generations of lawyers have put their lives on the line to uphold the work of human rights advocates and other, perhaps more ordinary people, in danger of having wrongful abuses swallowed up by inattentive or corrupt states. At the same time, many of us have watched in awe and mainly at a distance as doctors with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and other groups keep societies on life support through bombing raids and grisly pandemics. While Zika impacts are not to be equated with those of Ebola nor HIV in its earlier iterations, there are risks to take account of here as well, including to expectant mothers in areas of limited medical care and female doctors who might themselves wish to conceive at some later time.

Those of us with relatively “easy duty” here in New York surely do not give sufficient honor to those with high professional credentials who choose a much more challenging path, bringing some measure of justice and healing to places most of the rest of us hesitate to go.

The other major commonality of these events is an implication for good governance.  At the Zika event, the medial professionals competently explored the epidemiological implications of the disease and drew connections to other (often more severe) pandemics.  But it soon became apparent that descriptions of disease response needed to be placed in their larger political and social contexts.   What are the security, development and governance dimensions of a viable health response framework?   What does the medical profession need from states, all states, such that doctors can contribute more than helping patients recover from disease or injury only to face economic deprivation, insecurity in many forms, even abuses at the hands of their own leaders? The doctors in this discussion were not entirely comfortable responding to this inquiry, but all have served in challenging settings and all understood the “enabling” criteria for effective medical response which many states are unable or unwilling to provide.

The event on Legal Aid offered another lens on this problem.   As with response to pandemics, no one in the UN conference room would have suggested that Legal Aid was not a useful commitment.   All of the designated presenters and diplomats who followed voiced concern about chronic imbalances our justice outcomes.  US  Amb. Power gave full support to ILF’s work while noting the degree to which the US continues to fall short on legal fairness.  Argentina’s Amb. Garcia Moritan made clear that legal access – a core provision of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – should privilege free legal assistance if such access was ever to become universal.  South Africa’s Mlambo highlighted Legal Aid as a key element in any successful effort to eradicate poverty, itself perhaps the single key objective of the SDGs.

Ever-thoughtful Brazil reminded the audience that access to justice and access to the courts are simply not the same thing, and urged more dispute resolution resources outside formal courts.  What was not discussed at great length, to the chagrin of some listeners, is the ability of Legal Aid, court-appointed legal assistance, or any other form of pro-bono aid to overcome the enormous legal advantages accruing from the growing economic inequality within many states. As access to legal aid is not the same as access to courts, neither is it the same as legal clout sufficient to take on the corporate and political hegemonies that can pay for (or in some instances pay off) the highest caliber of legal services.

The sad reality is that, while Legal Aid should command higher policy attention, many of those who could benefit most from that assistance already feel “burned” by their justice system.  This was certainly the case in my Harlem parish, and I have heard similar stories in poverty stricken areas worldwide.  Many people know (or think they know) that the legal system is “rigged” against them, not just because they have irresolvable difficulties locating some form of legal assistance, but because economic and social inequalities have clear, compelling and largely detrimental legal dimensions. Rightly or not, these people have developed significant trust issues with the state and its legal institutions.

When I was a child, it was common to see summertime trucks passing through the neighborhood spraying chemicals designed to suppress mosquito populations.  And while the fumes seemed toxic enough (and in fact turned out to be of some medical consequence to more than just the bugs) folks in the neighborhood had sufficient residue of trust in the government to allow the sprayers to pass without protest.  But in too many parts of the world, such spraying might be interpreted as an attack of the state.  In too many parts of the world, the urgent instructions of medical personnel seeking to control a pandemic might be interpreted as a state-endorsed violation of their personal and cultural integrity.  In too many parts of the world, people have had painful, interactive lessons with the legal systems in their countries of residence and, as a result (as quoted recently in a NY tabloid), simply “don’t do courts” any longer.

Building trust in the principles and practices of states is not an optional measure, but is essential to any medical healing or legal leveling in the social order.  At the same time, recognizing the myriad of consequences for medical healing, legal assistance and more from both an unequal social order and the resulting deficit of public trust is just as important.  Those of us seeking to expand medical, legal and other assistance must commit more to ensure a proper “enabling environment” for needed services; which in large measure is tantamount to better ensuring more effective and trustworthy patterns of governance.

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