UN Crime Congress Calls for Stronger International Legal Aid Network

By Rachel Aicher, Director of Advocacy & Partnerships


“Now is the time for solidarity. It is time to strengthen multi-stakeholder partnerships to build just, peaceful, and inclusive societies in our post-COVID-19 world,” said Japan’s Minister of Justice Yoko Kamikawa in closing her presidency of the 14th UN Crime Congress in Kyoto on March 12. Among these multi-stakeholder partnerships, calls for a stronger International Legal Aid Network resonated throughout the week, garnering support from allies around the world.


The United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice is a global gathering of policy-makers, practitioners, academia, intergovernmental organizations, and civil society. Held every 5 years since 1955, the Congresses provide a forum for the exchange of views and experiences among States, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, and experts on issues ranging from corruption to wildlife trafficking to cybercrime. The 14th Congress was held from March 7-12, 2021 in Kyoto, Japan after being postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year’s theme was “Advancing crime prevention, criminal justice, and the rule of law: towards the achievement of the 2030 Agenda.”


In plenary, speakers considered multidimensional approaches to provide access to justice for all, underlining “the need to address the needs of women, youth, the poor, and other stakeholders as fundamental to the promotion of the rule of law,” so everyone is treated fairly, equitably and without discrimination. As reported by the UN, speakers “highlighted the need to redouble efforts to ensure access to justice and the provision of legal aid, in particular for vulnerable members of society.”


This is a strong affirmation of the ILF’s dedication to providing quality legal aid and building sustainable legal aid systems, as well as its global advocacy around the 2030 Agenda. The Crime Congress reinforced key messages put forward by International Legal Aid Conference participants last fall in the Roadmap for Increasing Access to Justice Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic, including a stronger International Legal Aid Network.


As the UN reported, Crime Congress discussions covered “innovative approaches to legal aid, including the establishment of specialized bodies and networks of legal aid providers,” and speakers “noted the benefits of partnerships with civil society, educational institutions, and the private sector.” In particular, “the Buenos Aires Declaration on the Implementation of the United Nations Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems was recalled, in which States were called upon to strengthen international cooperation for an international legal aid network.” Further, “several speakers emphasized the importance of enhancing the provision of legal aid, including through public legal service systems, noting the importance of the United Nations Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems.”


Thanks to the positive engagement of Member States including Argentina, Brazil, Israel, South Africa, the United States, and others, the draft Kyoto Declaration included a section on access to legal aid, encouraging Member States to “take measures to ensure access to timely, effective, adequately resourced, and affordable legal aid,” to promote “practical application” of the UN Principles and Guidelines “by encouraging the development of guidance tools, as well as the collection and sharing of data on access to legal aid, and by developing a specialized network of legal aid providers to exchange information and best practices.”


We welcome this language. Yet as Minister Kamikawa reminded the global community, the Congress and resulting Kyoto Declaration are not a goal but a starting point for action. The ILF looks forward to continuing to join with partners around the world to expand access to legal aid and ensure justice for all. We are especially keen to strengthen the International Legal Aid Network, so ILAN can offer an online portal for knowledge exchange and collaboration among legal aid providers and justice stakeholders worldwide.


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