In conjunction with the 2020 Tang Prize Award Ceremony held virtually on November 20, three lectures by the 2020 winners for Rule of Law were premiered consecutively online in the evening of the same day, where representatives from three NGOs in Bangladesh, Colombia, and Lebanon respectively shared their experiences of speaking up for the marginalized and achieving environmental, social, and judicial justice through public interest litigation.
The Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA) kicked off the event with a talk on “Impact of PIL (Public Interest Litigation),” followed by The Legal Agenda with a lecture on “Public Interest Litigation in Undemocratic Arab Contexts: Lessons from The Legal Agenda Experiences.” Dejusticia: The Center for Law, Justice, and Society provided a fitting finale with their elaboration on “Strategic Litigation, Democracy, and Social Justice: A Perspective from Dejusticia and the Global South.”
Ms. Syeda Rizwana Hasan of BELA pointed out that fisheries, agriculture, and forest industries are the dominant sectors in Bangladesh. Therefore, the majority of people in her country depend on an unpolluted environment for their survival. By conducting public interest litigation, BELA has succeeded in extending the interpretation of the “constitutionally recognized right to life” to include the “right to environment.” As a result, the government has been instructed by the rulings to protect wetlands, restore canals, and stop “allocating forestland for developing purposes” so as to safeguard people’s rights and interests and strike a balance between economic development and environmental justice.
Prof. Samer Ghamroun, co-founder of The Legal Agenda, explained how in the undemocratic Arab countries, “law is often a repressive, exploitative tool in the hands of autocrats” and how the spirit of the rule of law has been twisted to fit into the narrative of a rule by law system. Under these circumstances, public interest litigation became an effective means for initiating public debates and social change as well as promoting political engagement, with the aim of transforming “the normative environment of lawyering.” Creating conditions for possible reforms by changing the mindset of judges and lawyers, the legal education and the media culture, The Legal Agenda hopes to generate fresh political and cultural momentums in society, to help build a sound political system, and to open up space for public discussions.
Prof. Vivian Newman Pont from Dejusticia emphasized that to secure a victory in public interest litigation, also known as strategic litigation, strategies have to be laid out clearly in order to bring about effects that can facilitate social transformation and the defense of human rights. She then reviewed some famous cases Dejusticia filed in the past as examples. One of them concerns how, by bringing strategic litigation, Dejusticia was able to “obtain several rulings by the Constitutional Court that achieved equal rights for same-sex couples,” allowing them to get married, adopt children, and be entitled to social protection just like their heterosexual counterparts. Moreover, “the hearts and minds of Colombians” about homosexuals have also changed as a consequence. Another one is about a referendum proposed by supporters of the then popular President Uribe in an attempt to remove presidential term limits for him. Dejusticia collaborated with several civil society organizations to conduct strategic litigation and succeeded in preserving democracy and preventing Colombia from becoming a dictatorship.
However, critics of public interest litigation believe that this kind of legal practice, when not carried out properly, could be harmful to social justice and democracy. Prof. Rodrigo Uprimny Yepes, another speaker from Dejusticia, noted that public interest litigation “is not an almighty panacea” and it has its risks and limitations.
“Successful strategic litigation”, according to Prof. Uprimny, “requires not only the existence of clear, general legal norms” but also the accessibility of the court system, absent one of which could lead to a situation where “strategic litigation might be impossible, or at least very difficult.” However, even when these preconditions are met, “the litigation might appear too costly” or the verdict issued by a court could legitimize the injustice they are fighting against. In addition, judges are not elected officials, but the decisions they make have “huge impact on society.” Thus, public interest litigation implies some political risks and the “politicization of courts” can undermine the rule of law and “impoverish democracy.” For this reason, civil society organizations that intend to utilize public interest litigation should continue to defend judicial independence, make sure judges honor their commitments to human rights, and make ex-ante evaluations to determine whether strategic litigation is the only instrument for getting justice served in order to avoid any backlashes.
These three NGOs were awarded 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.”
As part of the celebration of the 2020 Tang Prize, all eight laureates will deliver their lectures online. Check out more in this series of lectures where laureates convey their broad vision through inspiring and thought-provoking stories, in the hope of helping restore order and stability in a post-pandemic society. The Tang Prize Foundation therefore cordially invites everyone to visit our official YouTube channel to watch these lectures and learn about some of the most pressing issues of our time.
The Legal Agenda https://youtu.be/53ptvLV4deg