Three NGOs were named joint winners of the 2020 Tang Prize in Rule of Law, “for their efforts in furthering the rule of law and its institutions through education and advocacy. Utilizing innovative strategic litigation, informed by rigorous scholarship, these organizations have shown exemplary perseverance in promoting greater individual, social and environmental justice, in milieus where the foundations of the rule of law are under severe challenge.” For the first time since its establishment in 2012, the Tang Prize was awarded to organizations. It is a decision the significance of which cannot be underestimated.
The three new Tang Prize laureates are: Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (hereafter “BELA”) from Bangladesh, Dejusticia: The Center for Law, Justice and Society (hereafter “Dejusticia") from Colombia, and The Legal Agenda from Lebanon. They share four key features. First of all, they are under the conditions where the foundations of the rule of law are under great challenges; secondly, they are committed to promoting, to improving and to furthering the rule of law and its institutions; thirdly, they utilize strategic litigations that are based on solid academic research, pushing for governmental actions to serve the law’s purpose to protect; finally, they are all dedicated to advancing the general public’s understanding of the rule of law through education and advocacy, pushing forward the idea that everyone can contribute to the realization of the rule of law.
Established in 1992, BELA works under adverse conditions where poor environmental quality and governmental corruptions continue to ravage the country. While the general public reflects a distrust of legal authorities, BELA promotes the rule of law and environmental justice through public interest litigations, legislative advocacy, research and publication, as well as capacity-building for actors both in the public sector and civil society. Their innovative approaches to the Bangladesh Constitution has enabled them to interlink environmental pollutions with the threats to people’s well-being. By successfully persuaded the domestic courts to recognize its legal standings on behalf of the people afflicted by environmental degradation, BELA established the path for public interest litigations in Bangladesh. Its initiative has a far-reaching effect of setting a goal for other social activists in Bangladesh to strive for.
Ever since the first public interest litigation in 1994, BELA has conducted more than 300 public interest lawsuits and advocated legislative reform for environmental justice. Issues drawn within its ambit ranged as widely as river pollution, industrial pollution, vehicular pollution, illegal construction, labor welfare, illegal mining, reduction of plastic use, wetland protection and prevention of pollution from shipbreaking.
In 2017, BELA filed a petition with evidence and argued that pollution and encroachment of the canals are the main causes of the growing water logging problem in the capital Dhaka. As a consequence, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh ordered the government to submit a plan for the recovery and restoration of Dhaka’s 50 canals. Furthermore, the Court issued a rule stipulating that the respondent authorities should explain their inaction to protect the canals. It has since become a classic case in Bangladesh legal history.
Founded in 2005, Dejusticia is a Colombian-based research and advocacy organization with most members being leading legal scholars and practitioners on human rights, constitutional law and transitional justice. Though situated in a country haunted by a tumultuous past and plagued by various contemporary struggles, Dejusticia firmly believes that academic research can substantively contribute to social justice and lead to social reform. Through campaigning, publishing and litigating persistently, they have devoted great effort to safeguard human rights, notably filing and winning landmark cases concerning sensitive issues such as anti-discrimination (race and gender), the rights of indigenous people and refugees, as well as environmental degradation.
Dejusticia had famously supported a group of 25 young plaintiffs in their lawsuit against the Colombian government, in which the Organization argued that the ongoing deforestation in the Amazon has violated the youths’ constitutional rights. In 2018, Colombian Supreme Court recognized the Amazon as an entity subject of rights, and subsequently ruled that the government bears the obligation to protect, conserve and restore the Amazon. Therefore, the government should take urgent action to stem the forest degradation caused by illegal logging. Failing to do so is tantamount to an infringement of the Amazon’s rights and the right to a healthy environment of both present and future generations in Colombia. Through litigations, Dejusticia laid bare the impact deforestation in Colombia has on climate change, as well as its close connection to people’s entitled rights to life and health. The winning verdict ultimately set the legal precedent in Latin America.
Since its establishment in 2009, The Legal Agenda has managed to operate against the backdrop of an influx of refugees, corruption and the public’s pervasive distrust of the judicial organs. The Organization has successfully strengthened judicial independence and the rule of law in Lebanon through a multidisciplinary approach that is built on researching and monitoring the judiciary; helping in forming a club for judges to consolidate their independence from political interference; preparing a draft law for the independence of the judiciary and building support for it; promoting social debates and public support for judicial independence. The Legal Agenda intends to transform the general public’s opinion from being skeptical of the justice system to being willing to pursue legal avenues to defend the rights of their own and others’. In doing so, The Legal Agenda focuses on helping the people become more receptive to the process of capacity-building on legal knowledge, a process which can sharpen the public awareness of using legal means to change the Arab societies and to improve the people’s living standards.
In addition, The Legal Agenda spoke up for marginalized groups and achieved major legal precedents in order to advance the legal protection for migrant workers, refugees, the LGBT community, and the families of the victims of forced disappearance. To broaden the public’s knowledge of the rule of law and strengthen their legal defense, The Legal Agenda also developed model defenses as guidelines when it comes to vulnerable groups’ vindication. Its pioneering approach has expanded beyond Lebanon to other Arab countries, notably in Tunisia where it has set up an office.
Established by Taiwanese entrepreneur Dr. Samuel Yin, the biannual Tang Prize consists of four categories, namely Sustainable Development, Biopharmaceutical Science, Sinology and Rule of Law, with NT$ 40 million (approx. US$1.3 million) in cash prize and a research grant of NT$ 10 million (approx. US$ 0.33 million) allocated to each category. It aims to promote the interaction and cooperation between culture and technology so as to find a 21st century path to the sustainable development of the world. For more information, please visit the prize’s official website at https://www.tang-prize.org/en/first.php