Imagine this scenario: the air pollution index constantly goes through the roof; the marginalized groups of the society are being systematically segregated or chased out, factories dumped wastewater and toxic chemicals into rivers in broad day light; corruption struts through the daily life where might makes right. Then ask yourself: when exposed to these hazards caused by failures of governance, when the word “justice” seemed more like fairytales than failed promises, do the common people really have no choice but to bear the brunt of the man-made disasters?
To find out the answers, the Tang Prize Foundation staged the 2020 Tang Prize Masters’ Forum in Rule of Law on September 21 at National Taiwan University, where the latest awardees, former laureates, representatives from Taiwan’s non-governmental organizations, and advocates of social and environmental justice got together to discuss the role of NGOs in contemporary civil society and to learn from each other’s experiences. Tang Prize laureates pointed out that NGOs convey the voice of ordinary people. They are entrusted with the task of bringing about vital political and social reform. However, they also have to worry about their capacity being restricted because of limited funding and about governments’ suppressions to curtail their reach, even lethal threats to their very lives.
The forum, titled “Exploring the Role of Non-Governmental Organizations in the Contemporary Civil Society,” saw three 2020 awardees, Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA), as its name shows, hailing from Bangladesh, Dejusticia: The Center for Law, Justice and Society based in Colombia, and The Legal Agenda based in Lebanon, sharing their views on this topic through a conference call.
Executive Vice President of National Taiwan University, Dr. Ming-Syan Chen, praised these three NGOs in his opening speech, for the indomitable spirit they demonstrate when working in circumstances where the foundations of rule of law are faced with severe challenges. “They have never ceased to initiate strategic litigations, backed up by innovative reading of the constitution and statutes, so as to protect the right of the vulnerable, as well as to promote social and individual justice,” Dr. Chen remarked. In addition, they should be lauded for their achievements “in advancing general public’s understanding of the rule of law through education and advocacy,” thus raising people’s awareness of their rights and facilitating the application of the law in our daily life.
In a pre-recorded video, former Justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa and 2014 Tang Prize laureate in Rule of Law Albie Sachs paid tribute to the three 2020 winners for their service to ordinary people and for promoting the idea of the rule of law. He also applauded the Tang Prize Selection Committee for expanding the scope of the award by acknowledging the contributions of NGOs working in different parts of the world. Justice Sachs reminded us that collaboration is a central aspect of the rule of law. NGOs, though operating outside of political structures, can still exert significant influence. They are crucial actors in our endeavor to utilize laws and legal theories as means to defend human rights and preserve human dignity.
Vivian Newman Pont, executive director of Dejusticia, divided NGOs into two categories, the ones which attend to specific interests and needs of their own members, and the ones which transcend personal interests in order to pursue the common good on issues such as social and distributive justice, the rights of marginalized groups, and conflicts over territories and natural resources. By this definition, Dejusticia belongs to the latter.
Prof. Rodrigo Uprimny Yepes, also from Dejusticia, echoed the concept formulated by 2018 laureate Joseph Raz, arguing that the rule of law “must be respected not only by individuals but also by authorities, in order to avoid an arbitrary government and to protect individual freedoms.” Through “the separation of powers, especially the existence of the judiciary,” the rule of law can prevent governments from abusing their powers. Moreover, the notion of the rule of law should not only be associated with a citizen’s political rights, it should also pertain to his or her social and cultural rights. It helps us deal with problems including “acute discrimination, social inequalities,” and “widespread poverty.” To give an example, Director Pont recounted how Dejusticia spent years conducting multilateral negotiations, and was finally able to see “the first judicial decision that reaffirms the importance of Afro-communities in two islands of the Caribbean” and “the culture and bond within hundreds of families” maintained.
On the another side of the world, The Legal Agenda is committed to the same cause and has been striving to improve judicial independence in Lebanon and Arab region since its establishment in 2009. Samer Ghamroun, co-founder and current board member of The Legal Agenda, explained why, after witnessing government corruption, bureaucratic inefficiency, and most political systems “being hijacked” by those with vested interest, they had to take on the task of advocating judicial reform. Their strategies include: first of all, by monitoring judicial institutions and practices, they urged the government to open the “black box” and allow ordinary people to understand and talk about judicial issues. Then, by using social science methodologies to study how authoritarian regimes took control of the judiciary and why many legal professionals are quite apathetic about defending the rights of marginalized groups, they managed to identify the scourge that plagued the justice system. Finally, by encouraging relevant public debates about issues not covered by mainstream media that tend to serve the interest of the coalition government, they shifted the focus onto the situation on the ground and onto the needs of vulnerable people. These are the avenues The Legal Agenda has been exploring in an attempt to generate positive impact on society.
Many NGOs are concerned about how to maintain their professional independence without the fear of losing their funding, and how to keep calling for necessary reform while being able to withstand attacks launched by different adversaries from the public organs or private corporations. The dilemma is as real for The Legal Agenda as it is for BELA. Syeda Rizwana Hasan, chief executive of BELA, lamented that “many states with authoritarian regimes are criminalizing NGOs and their activism, and stigmatizing them as foreign agents, enemies of the state,” and NGOs are portrayed as extremists who are fundamentally against any development. Moreover, the government has started to enact laws that can constrain the rights of NGOs and restrict their freedom of expression, as well as spread fake information to weaken NGOs as a democratic force.
Echoing these worries, Madame Justice Louise Arbour, 2016 Tang Prize laureate in Rule of Law and former special representative for International Migration for the United Nations, asserted that it is “through the voice of NGOs” that people are “truly represented.” However, what we see today is NGOs increasingly rely on funding from international philanthropic organizations while many governments relentlessly try to curtail their capacity. What’s equally alarming is the increasing presence of GONGOs (government-organized non-governmental organizations) in the UN system. Their existence is a demonstration of how governments can hijack civil society actors to advance their specific interests and in doing so, undermine “the reach, the advocacy, the capacity of NGOs.” Behaviors like these deserve the most strident denouncement.
Also invited to this forum to exchange ideas with the 2020 laureates were prominent advocates for the rule of law in Taiwan: Robin J. Winkler, former president of Environmental Jurist Association, Mei-Nu Yu, former chairperson of the Awakening Foundation, Clarence Chou, chairman of Taiwan Association for Human Rights, and Lucas Wang, chair of the International Cooperation Team of the Judicial Reform Foundation.
Though NGOs are the voice of the ordinary people, therefore should be a bridge of communication between states and their peoples, both Mr. Winkler and Mr. Wang mentioned the ongoing tension between civil society and governments due to NGOs often being seen either as allies of certain political parties or as the arch enemies of the authorities. This tension, however, doesn’t seem to be as worryingly high in Taiwan, argued Mr. Chu, because Taiwan’s status as a non-UN member means that the government is more dependent on NGOs to set up partnership with other countries. Besides, after three peaceful transitions of power in Taiwan, NGOs on this island can benefit from having a relatively independent judiciary and are also afforded more opportunities to interact with politicians.
Nevertheless, the real challenge arrives when other civil society actors question the NGOs’ legitimacy. Madame Yu described how the Act of Gender Equality in Employment was introduced and passed in the Legislative Yuan as an example of how to collaborate closely and mobilize other like-minded organizations, because it is often through collective efforts that NGOs can achieve their goals with all angles explored. Another aspect that the panelists pointed out was the misconception of NGO’s functions and the belittling of their work by the general public. Negative stances or even unconcerned attitude such as these not only hinder NGOs from pushing for environmental justice and judicial reform, but also pose as obstructions to further the dialogues within the society.