It was announced on June 21 that the 2020 Tang Prize in Rule of Law, for the first time in the Prize’s history, was jointly awarded to three non-governmental organizations (NGO): Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA) from Bangladesh, Dejusticia: The Center for Law, Justice and Society from Colombia, and The Legal Agenda from Lebanon. Many NGOs, despite being plagued by a lack of resources, continue to fight for social justice and protection of the environment fearlessly. While it is no mean feat to make persistent efforts under conditions difficult for the rule of law, the fact that these three NGOs were able to stand out on the international arena and to come into the spotlight of the world’s attention is something of special significance to the NGOs and to the Tang Prize as well.
The Tang Prize, Asia’s Nobel Prize
Established by Taiwanese entrepreneur Dr. Samuel Yin and consisting of four award categories, namely Sustainable Development, Biopharmaceutical Science, Sinology and Rule of Law, the biannual Tang Prize aims to emulate the ethos of the Nobel Prize in terms of awarding individuals or organizations recognized for their great contributions to the wellbeing of mankind and the world as a whole. Since its inception in 2014, it has quickly become one of Taiwan’s most prestigious international awards. Characterized by its integration of Eastern and Western cultural values and its embrace of diversity and inclusiveness, the Tang Prize was once dubbed the “Asian Nobel” in a 2013 BBC report.
Former Justice Albie Sachs won the inaugural Tang Prize in Rule of Law for his lifelong commitment to South Africa’s democracy and freedom and for his persistent advocate for the protection of human rights. In 2016, the award went to Madame Justice Louise Arbour, for her efforts to overcome the limitations imposed by international politics and bureaucratic apparatus in order to realize international criminal justice. Professor Joseph Raz, who won the prize in 2018, has been a pioneer in the academic realm of jurisprudence debates, where his works have helped many scholars to break new ground. Whether it is to pursuit the realization of justice or to further academic research, the accomplishments of these three laureates have greatly enhanced the fundamental conditions of human society as a whole.
Setting a new record, NGOs won the Tang Prize for the first time
Recipients of the 2020 Tang Prize in Rule of Law are lauded for putting academic theories into practice, especially through a bottom-up approach that encourages civil societies to call for social reforms. Though situated in the milieu where the foundation of the rule of law is under serious threats, these three organizations mobilize civil society, utilize innovative legal strategies that are informed by rigorous scholarship, and bulwark the very infrastructure of rule of law through legal means, so as to advocate for marginalized groups, defend basic human rights, and realize social and environmental justice.
The Bangladesh people have long fallen prey to serious environmental pollution, including river pollution caused by industrial waste, excessive logging, illegal mining, and floods brought about by trash filling up canals and exacerbated by failed canal regulation, all of which have considerably compromised their quality of life.
After years of campaigning for environmental justice in Bangladesh, in 1994, BELA, through litigations, debated before the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, and the Court later recognized the legal basis of “public interest litigation” in the Constitution of Bangladesh. It was indeed a daunting task, since public interest litigation was still a relatively new concept in Asia at that time. It is an administrative litigation concerning environmental issues that can be initiated by a third party.
In Taiwan, it was around 20 years ago when the concept of public interest litigations begin to emerge in practice, and nearly 10 years ago, less than a hundred of these concerned litigations were brought to court in Taiwan. As the lawsuit of such nature remains to be a huge challenge in Taiwan, it’s hard to imagine how difficult it must be for BELA, in their capacity as an NGO, to issue such litigations on behalf of other civilians and finally succeeded in making the Supreme Court confirm this concept and construct a new judicial approach for it.
By initiating litigations from an active and progressive standpoint, BELA has helped many victims of environmental pollution get compensation. They have also held those in public or private sectors responsible for these adverse effects accountable. In addition, through academic research, publications and advocacy, BELA has assisted local communities in taking actions to have their voices heard; they frequently organize seminars and workshops for civilians and civil servants in order to educate people about the fundamental notions of environmental governance and accountability. For them, removing the cause of a problem is as important as solving it.
Dejusticia is a Colombian organization dedicated to academic research and advocacy of many social issues. It consists of many top scholars specializing in various fields of law. Dejusticia not only tirelessly promotes academic research but also established School D, an institute of human rights practice that has held hundreds of workshops and international conferences to discuss topics related to human rights and transitional justice. Moreover, Dejusticia has published hundreds of academic papers and made them available for free download, in the hope that ideas such as equity and justice can be disseminated to the entire world.
Dejusticia would have appeared rather detached from reality had the only thing they ever did was publishing. Through strategic litigations and public campaigns, they coordinated the actions of other grass-roots groups and civil society organizations to focus the public’s attention on the rights of the LGBTQ+, while continuing to strive for gender equality, socioeconomic equality, as well as the equality among different ethnic groups. Moreover, by adopting layman’s terms, they have helped ordinary people understand and be duly concerned about important social issues. Through the route of public interest litigation, they also managed to safeguard the deteriorating natural environment in Colombia.
Even though Taiwan now enjoys the reputation of being the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage, there were years of struggle before the Act for Implementation of Judicial Yuan Interpretation No.748, Taiwan’s legislation on same-sex marriage, was finally passed. Besides, same-sex marriage being granted a constitutional right doesn’t mean all the deep-rooted prejudices and discriminations will disappear overnight. It requires Taiwanese society as a whole to make a concerted effort. Looking back, the road to equality had not been smooth in Taiwan. Although many NGOs around the globe all face mountains of challenges along the similar path, Dejusticia, as an NGO located in the relatively conservative society such as Colombia, has continued its persistent fight for equality, has not lost momentum but keeps moving forward.
Based in Lebanon, The Legal Agenda aims to promote judicial reform and defend marginalized groups through academic research, publications, and advocacy as well as to improve the judicial system not only in Lebanon but also in the Arab world. Besides setting up an office in Tunisia, they also have points of contact in Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, and Morocco.
Facing an influx of refugees, a corrupted government responsible for the hardship its people have to endure, and a judicial system detested by the majority of local people, The Legal Agenda decided that their primary goal had to be the realization of judicial independence. Therefore, they established a civilian observatory to monitor the judiciary and formed a judicial club for judges to consolidate their independence from political interference, all of which have helped Lebanon make great strides in building a more robust judicial system.
Taiwan has enjoyed its democratic fruit for many years after its autocratic era came to an end. However, many Taiwanese people still find it hard to believe that the justice department can be completely independent and be rid of any political influence. As a result, people’s trust in the judiciary remains rather fragile. It is therefore understandable why a judicial system held hostage by politics will not only fail to have justice served but also undermine the morale of judicial workers and shatter the public’s faith in the judiciary. It wouldn’t take much effort to imagine what a Herculean task it must be for The Legal Agenda, working in Arab countries where the judicial environment is more hostile than it is in Taiwan, to remain adamant that it should try to change people’s perceptions about justice and rule of law, one step at a time.
COVID-19 makes winning the Tang Prize an even more precious experience
NGOs mostly rely on the passion and aspiration of their members to remain operational, but it also means they often have to deal with a severe lack of resources. When they are unable to find adequate financial support, it is likely that ideals would surrender themselves to reality and these organizations would end up being disbanded. Trying to keep afloat when COVID-19 keeps rampaging through the globe is a harsh trial for NGOs. Nonetheless, these three awardees chose to hold on to their belief, staying committed to seeking social justice and protecting the environment. Thus, the timing could not be better for them to win the Tang Prize and receive the largest prize money awarded in the field of the rule of law in the world so far. It undoubtedly provided a great deal of support they urgently needed.
On subjects of human rights, environmental protection, and judicial systems, there is a lot we can learn from others
It’s fair to say that the problems these three NGOs based in developing countries are tackling now, including human rights violation, environmental pollution, and a flawed judicial system, are issues not only Taiwan but also the rest of the world have to wrestle with. Take gender inequality or unsustainable management of natural resources as examples. Rather than classify them as emerging issues, people should realize that we have been turning a blind eye to these problems for a long time, and even regard their existence as inevitable. It was not until recent years that the Taiwanese public started to pay attention to them again. We, as a democratic and free society, should make sure to confront all future challenges head on. Keep an open mind and be ready to learn. Persevere with our endeavors to realize substantive justice. Continue to seek social and environmental justice in Taiwan and turn our civil society into a model for the rest of the world to follow.