Representatives from three non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that last week received the Tang Prize for their contributions to the rule of law shared in a lecture series their experiences speaking up for marginalized people and pursuing environmental, social and courtroom justice through public interest litigation.
The Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA) opened the Tang Prize Laureate Lecture series with a discussion on the impact of public interest litigation, which was followed by a talk by Lebanon-based The Legal Agenda and a presentation by Colombia-based Dejusticia.
BELA chief executive Syeda Rizwana Hasan said that the vast majority of people in Bangladesh depend on unpolluted fisheries, agriculture and forests to survive, but these resources are also part of the country’s dominant economic sectors.
Through public interest litigation, the group extended the interpretation of the Bangladeshi constitution’s “right to life” to include the “right to environment,” Hasan said.
As a result, the courts have instructed the government to protect wetlands, restore canals and stop allocating forestland for development, to safeguard people’s rights and interests, and strike a balance between economic development and environmental justice, she said.
“We have challenged unregulated urbanization. This has created tension between us and the mighty realtors,” she said. “We have got landmark judgements that have directed realtors to move sand dumped on wetland and fertile agriculture land.”
The Legal Agenda cofounder Samer Ghamroun said that the spirit of the rule of law is sometimes twisted to fit the narrative of a rule-of-law system, which is why public interest litigation became an effective means to create public debate and social change, as well as promote political engagement.
The Legal Agenda seeks to generate political and cultural momentum to build a sound political system and create the conditions needed for reform, Ghamroun said.
“The litigation that can be created through these conditions that I talked about is a strong politicizing, and vitalizing drive in societies like Lebanon,” he said.
Dejustica executive director Vivian Newman Pont said that strategies must be clearly laid out to facilitate social transformations and to defend human rights.
In her presentation, she reviewed cases Dejusticia had filed, including one about a referendum proposed by supporters of former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe to remove presidential term limits.
Dejusticia collaborated with several civil society groups to launch strategic litigation, which helped preserve democracy and prevented Colombia from becoming a dictatorship, she said.
Dejusticia lawyer Rodrigo Uprimny Yepes said that civil society organizations that intend to use public interest litigation should also defend judicial independence by making sure judges honor their commitments to human rights.
The Tang Prize Foundation last year recognized the NGOs “for their efforts to further the rule of law and its institutions through education and advocacy,” but only last week awarded them in a virtual ceremony postponed due to COVID-19.
The organizations have shown exemplary perseverance in promoting greater individual, social and environmental justice in areas where the foundations of the rule of law are under severe challenge, the foundation said.
The Tang Prize is a biennial award established in 2012 by Samuel Yin (尹衍樑), chairman of the Ruentex Group and founder of the Tang Foundation, to honor people who have made prominent contributions in four categories — sustainable development, biopharmaceutical science, Sinology and the rule of law.