Residents of a UNDP housing rehabilitation project in Bangkok.
More than one billion people live in extreme poverty, surviving on less than one dollar a day. The world’s poor suffer from a lack of adequate shelter, health care, education, protection from violence, and a voice in what happens in their communities. Every year, almost 11 million children die from preventable diseases and more than half a million women die during pregnancy or childbirth. It has been recently estimated that more than 4 billion of the world’s poor are excluded from the rule of law, resulting in the lack of legal protection of their rights and entitlements.
World leaders have recognized that the rule of law is crucial for sustained economic growth, sustainable development and the eradication of poverty and hunger. The UN development agenda, articulated in the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), based on the Millennium Declaration, calls for the eradication of extreme poverty in all its dimensions- income poverty, hunger, disease, lack of adequate shelter, gender inequality, poor education, and environmental degradation. The MDGs include commitments made by developed nations, such as increased official development assistance and improved market access for exports from developing countries. The Goals target cutting global poverty in half by 2015.
Recent international initiatives to highlight the legal empowerment of the poor have drawn renewed worldwide attention to the linkages among poverty, legal exclusion and injustice. In many developing countries, laws, institutions, and policies governing economic and social interactions do not afford equal opportunity and protection to a large segment of the population, who are mostly poor, minorities, women, children and other disadvantaged groups. In some cases, laws and institutions impose barriers and biases against the poor and marginalized groups. Where laws exist protecting and upholding the rights of the poor and marginalized, institutions and processes can be too difficult and costly for them to access. The prevalence of corruption and abuse of power in many justice systems most greatly affects those who are poor and most vulnerable. In many developing countries, informal justice mechanisms, norms, and practices govern the everyday life of the poor.
UN rule of law activities seek to address the legal exclusion of the poor and marginalized, ensuring legal protection of and justice for all. This involves a bottom-up approach of legal empowerment to enable the poor and disadvantaged groups to understand and claim their entitlements and rights, and access justice, security and services for this purpose. Support for gender equality, and the inclusion of marginalized groups and groups subject to discrimination is a key aspect of this work.
The UN rule of law approach is based on international norms and standards, including the countless UN treaties, declarations, guidelines and bodies of principles that represent universally applicable standards. It involves support for the realization of economic, social and cultural rights, as well as civil and political rights. Legislative reform, institution-building and support for legal assistance and access to justice focus on birth registration and legal identity, labor, employment and business, housing rights, property and land governance, reproductive health, and environmental protection. Assistance in the area of security institutions and criminal justice is also important since security and freedom from fear is necessary for the pursuit of livelihoods. Many of these activities are targeted towards reaching specific MDGs, and creating an overall enabling environment in countries for social and economic progress.