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In July, the World Justice Forum IV (organized by the World Justice Project) brought together more than 550 business and nonprofit leaders, legal experts, development practitioners, journalists, military leaders, social entrepreneurs, and other global luminaries from more than 100 countries to address critical rule of law issues around the world. In partnership with the Skoll World Forum and the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the World Justice Project asked a number of speakers to reflect on a wide range of issues including land rights, access to water, criminal justice, and much more. View the full series here.
On the Security and Law Enforcement panel, Karen Tse, CEO and founder of International Bridges to Justice (IBJ), was asked whether or not she views police officers as her enemy. Given that IBJ’s mission is to provide legal representation for victims who are abused and tortured by the police, the obvious answer seemed to be yes.
Every day in countries throughout the world, citizens are arbitrarily detained, tortured, and denied access to counsel. Without support for the local implementation of the rule of law, which includes effective defense counsel, the vast majority of ordinary citizens are left vulnerable to everyday practices of brutality and lack of due process rights. Most abused citizens are victims of their own poverty. Without the resources to afford legal representation, the rights of the poor and marginalized are routinely violated. However, a large proportion of these prisoners are arrested for petty crimes. As the moderator of the panel also reflected, in Mexico 42% of prisoners, a total of 100,000 people, are in pre-trial detention. Of these prisoners, 50% have been arrested for crimes of theft worth less than $500. Many do not have access to counsel. This injustice is not unique to Mexico. Victims around the world are punished for their poverty, not for their crimes.
IBJ was founded to fight this injustice by focusing on the local implementation of laws safeguarding citizen rights and by strengthening the critical, and often neglected, defender side of the scale. The end goal is to reform and strengthen defense systems worldwide to ensure that legal protection is accessible to all, regardless of poverty and economic status. A major inspiration for founding IBJ came from my experience working as a United Nations ‘judicial mentor’ in Cambodia in 1996, where I was assigned the duty of confronting police officers about their routine practice of torturing prisoners. The officers insisted that torture was the only way to obtain a reliable confession. However, by recounting the brutal rules of the former Khmer Rouge Tuol Sleng torture center: “Don’t you dare try and tell a lie or you will be given more lashes”, and asking the police officers to reconcile their current practices with their values, I discovered the genuine will of police officers to move forward from Cambodia’s dark past. As a result, these trainings became a tremendously positive and transformative experience, forming a precedent for IBJ’s global work in ending torture.
Since its establishment in 2000, IBJ has been actively transforming criminal justice systems worldwide. Specifically, IBJ has programs in six countries; China, Cambodia, India, Zimbabwe, Burundi and Rwanda, and sustains a global network of JusticeMakers. IBJ institutionalizes systematic early access to counsel, working with all actors in the criminal justice system to build accountable and transparent legal infrastructure. Building the capacity of and creating sustained dialogue between all these stakeholders is central to creating systematic change. The improved administration of justice has a positive economic impact as people are placed back into the workforce, and the provision of effective defense counsel makes the whole justice system more efficient. Furthermore, ensuring the right people are in jail for the right amount of time ultimately guarantees effective control over levels of crime.
Accordingly, IBJ has been embraced in all the countries where we work. Most recently IBJ’s model has been sought after in Myanmar. In June 2013 I met with the Chief of Police of Myanmar who overtly requested to find out how IBJ can help stop torture taking place in local police stations across the country. The Chief agreed with IBJ that a key solution lies in training police officers in lawful practices of investigation as well as in gaining public trust in law enforcement.
Support for the idea that the rule of law and human rights are inextricably linked is becoming increasingly widespread. Global recognition has emerged that human rights cannot be successfully upheld independently of a robust and effective rule of law. This development in the human rights narrative reflects positively on IBJ’s mission. However, there is still so much work that can and needs to be done to strengthen the rule of law and protect human rights around the world. IBJ’s global achievements prove that as long as communities have the will to move forward, together we have the power to create, transform and reform. For this reason, it makes sense that the answer to the opening question of whether I consider police officers as my enemy was an emphatic “no”.