Of Arson & Legal Aid: The Integration of Rule of Law in Peace and Development Policy and Practice

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

by Rhodri Williams, Senior Legal Expert, ILAC

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 policy and standards, and how international policy and standards 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, built with support from ILAC. On the night before its opening, young men from a nearby deprived neighbourhood attempted to burn it down. Caught by the police, they were among the first in line the next day for legal assistance – in a program funded by ILAC.

Mainstreaming rule of law in peace and development policy

Although these events took place several years before the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States was adopted by the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding, they anticipated many of the concerns that this innovative process aims to address. In a classically fragile country like Haiti, with a history of authoritarianism and corruption, it was predictable that those needing justice most would enjoy the least access to – and trust for – the justice system. In this case, distrust led to an attack on a symbol of the justice system that resulted in a very concrete need for legal aid. The perpetrators of the attack were given short jail sentences, but presumably either perished or broke out of prison when the capital was levelled by a massive 2010 earthquake, now remembered as a virtual avatar of the wages of state fragility.

During 2017, ILAC will celebrate its fifteenth birthday. As a consortium of over fifty organizations of jurists and rule of law practitioners worldwide, ILAC has come of age during a period in which rule of law became a central plank of both peacebuilding and development. During this period, the g7+ group of conflict-affected and fragile states played a crucial role in emphasizing the centrality of the rule of law to the sustainability of development.

This began with the New Deal itself, which included an innovative justice pillar that obligated adherents to “address injustices and increase people’s access to justice”. As the UN Millennium Development Goals(MDGs) phased out, the g7+ went on to forcefully  and successfully advocate for the inclusion of a rule of law and governance goal in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This took the form of SDG 16, which for the first time set out explicitly some of the 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.

Incorporating rule of law into peace and development practice

The New Deal and SDGs give rise to both challenges and opportunities. While the locking in of peace, governance and justice goals supports the sustainability of economic aims, it also forces both rule of law and development practitioners out of the comfort of their respective siloes and into unknown shared terrain. Of no less significance, while the SDGs’ “Agenda 2030” sets out global standards to be applied by all countries regardless of their level of development, the conflict-affected and fragile countries of the g7+ group remain at risk of being left behind.

In a recent conceptual note on reconciling the SDGs and the New Deal, the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding credited last year’s Stockholm Declaration with keeping the focus on the most fragile states:

In April 2016, over forty countries and organisations signed the Stockholm Declaration on Addressing Fragility and Building Peace in a Changing World. By doing so, they recommitted to using principles of the New Deal to guide efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in countries affected by fragility and conflict. …. 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.

These questions will be central to a May 3 session of the SIPRI Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development that ILAC is proud to co-lead with the UNDP Oslo Governance Centre. The same issues will also feature prominently in discussions and a public seminar at ILAC’s 15th Annual Meeting one week later in Tokyo. In its efforts to ensure that its current and future rule of law support work is adapted to support sustainable development outcomes, ILAC will bear in mind its experiences in Haiti.

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. However, a network of rural legal aid offices was in place by 2008, and became a springboard for the development the next year of a national legal aid system (Système national d’assistance légale – SYNAL) set up throughout the country and employing 300 Haitians, including 50 lawyers.

The results of SYNAL’s work were impressive. At a cost of USD 1 million per year, the offices provided free legal services to thousands of indigent Haitians. Perhaps the single most significant result was 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.” The results of the program attracted the attention of observers such as the International Crisis Group, which described the success of the program both in processing cases and attracting financing from the Global South in an October 2011 report:

The International Legal Assistance Consortium (ILAC), an NGO, has been important for mobilising national and donor support for legal aid. This has been crucial for creation of SYNAL. At the end of February 2011, when ILAC money ran out, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) budgeted $1.3 million for the project through January 2012. …. In two years, the program had handled some 8,000 cases and led to the release from detention of at least half that number.

Astonishingly, the program was dead less than half a year later. This was neither due to governmental arbitrariness, nor resistance from local justice actors. ILAC had worked carefully to ensure government understanding and support for the program, and neither access to prisoners nor proper supervision of SYNAL legal staff would have been possible without constructive relations with the judiciary and the bar. The program even survived the catastrophic 2010 earthquake virtually unscathed.

In the end, the ILAC program in Haiti was undone by shifting interest on the part of donors. In early 2012, UNASUR refused a routine extension of the program without explanation and demanded the immediate return of all prior unspent funds. Then-ILAC Executive Director Christian Åhlund instead spent the funds to wind down the last salary payments of the SYNAL staff, while appealing to other donors for funding to maintain the program even on an interim basis.

In what Mr. Åhlund described as “my most disappointing experience at ILAC”, no funding could be found on short notice, and an efficient, successful program harnessing local capacity that had changed the lives of thousands of individuals collapsed. UN agencies succeeded later in picking up some of the pieces, and the SYNAL was recently included in a review of best practices conducted by the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO). Initial feedback indicates that the ILAC program is “still highly regarded and is clearly the foundation on which other efforts have been pursued.”

In light of its experience in Haiti, ILAC has multiple reasons to be interested in the success of the New Deal and the SDGs. First and foremost, these standards recognize the contribution that we can make, through the work of our members, to the sustainability of economic development. However, no less important, standards such as the New Deal emphasize partnership and inclusive processes in which international expertise and funding should be timely, predictable, and responsive to the priorities identified by national duty bearers and civil society.


This blog post is a longer version of a piece initially published on 30 March 2017 on the SIPRI Write Peace blog