Opening Remarks at the Seminar on “The Role of Judicial Independence and Integrity in Improving the Effectiveness of the Rule of Law”

Feb 10, 2014

Opening Remarks by Ms. Renata Lok-Dessallien, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, and UNDP Resident Representative

Your Excellency U Tun Tun Oo, Chief Justice of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar,
Distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Mingalabar and a very good morning to you all.

I am delighted to join you in opening this seminar on such an important topic for Myanmar’s progress. I warmly thank His Excellency the Chief Justice of the Union for the invitation to be here today.

I have often thought that if I had the chance to organize my career in development over again, I would have specialized in rule of law, because justice and fairness are so fundamental to human well being. It is a basic human need, like food and shelter. Without justice, the human spirit cannot fly; it cannot be fulfilled; it is not satisfied. Justice and fairness are the bedrock for individual and societal peace and tranquility.

So, I am very pleased that the government has committed itself to improving public confidence and citizens’ access to laws by supporting reforms that improve the judiciary’s independence and effectiveness. The discussions at this seminar will contribute toward turning this commitment into practical actions.

My own experience in other countries in this region reminds me that we must all take a broad and long view of the most effective ways to build strong, wellfunctioning and trust-worthy justice institutions. China, where I served as Resident Coordinator for the last years, is only now starting to tackle the delicate issue of judicial independence, more than 30 years after it started its reform and opening up. These processes take time, patience, and a willingness to reexamine long-established ways of working to see what can be improved. In Indonesia, the government has adopted a National Strategy on Access to Justice that explicitly advocates the need to shift the legal policy paradigm from a law and order perspective, to one that places protection of the rights of poor and marginalized people at the heart of the justice reform agenda. The Indonesian strategy also includes promoting balance between formal and customary justice systems, recognizing the need to strengthen not just the courts, but also alternative dispute resolution mechanisms and community-based options that are the first choice for many ordinary people in seeking to resolve their justice problems.

UNDP's work on rule of law and access to justice around the world had taught many lessons. It has taught us that having good and fair laws and regulations, functioning courts and trained judicial staff are vitally important. But they are still only half the equation. The other half is from the bottom up: it is people's perceptions of the judiciary, of the carriage or miscarriage of justice, of the professionalism and integrity and fairness of the system.

Here in Myanmar, your country is rich in diverse traditions, and there is much to learn about how people view justice and justice mechanisms - formal and informal. UNDP recently conducted a preliminary mapping of people’s access to justice in Shan State, Mandalay and Ayeyarwaddy regions, which offers a revealing glimpse into this. For many people, their first and only contact with the law is through the village or ward administrator. The mapping found that women are particularly vulnerable to being disadvantaged in customary justice decision-making and excluded from formal justice protections. While the research found a clear consensus that justice institutions lack public trust, state actors saw this as a problem of public awareness, whereas civil society actors attributed this to the widespread belief that the justice system only serves
those with powerful interests. For those without money or influence, they believe it is something that is best avoided. As the UN General Assembly recognized last year in adopting a new set of UN Principles and Guidelines to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems, a properly-resourced and effective legal aid system, in which everyone has access to legal assistance even if they cannot afford to hire their own lawyer, is an essential safeguard to fairness and public trust in a
criminal justice system.

We all know that independence and integrity face their toughest tests when judges applying these principles are asked to hold all people and institutions accountable under the law. Among Myanmar’s neighbors, the judicial reform strategies of China, Vietnam and Lao PDR have each sought incrementally to enlarge judicial independence by reclaiming space from government administrators through the judicial authority to review decisions of state administrative bodies and hold them subject to court decision applying the rule of law. Likewise, bar associations can be useful allies in lending strong voices of support in advocating for judicial independence.

Transparency and efficiency are also key to building judicial independence and integrity. I understand there are plans to redesign more courtrooms to ensure there is space for the public to attend hearings. This - like the establishment of the Supreme Court’s website - can do much to build an institutional culture of greater openness and public interaction, which can help support efforts toward greater judicial integrity and independence. Modernization of court procedures and the use of technology can transform case management processes and may also contribute. The parliament’s suggestion to establish regional rule of law centers may offer another way in which the legal skills of current justice officials can be quickly enhanced, given that restoring the quality of legal education is a much longer-term enterprise. All these efforts and initiatives can help Myanmar's justice institutions to develop greater integrity, professionalism and independence.

As the Supreme Court’s own priorities and plans evolve further, UNDP will continue to draw on its deep and broad experience in justice-sector reform and access to justice in many countries around the world. Other members of the UN family too continue to contribute valuable expertise, such as UNICEF’s work on juvenile justice, OHCHR’s assistance to the National Human Rights Commission or UNODC’s support to your national efforts to combat drugs and corruption. Indeed, as Myanmar moves to implement its obligations under the UN Convention against Corruption, this offers a valuable opportunity for the judiciary to lead the way and serve as a model for other state institutions.

Of course, each country must find its own path forward and Myanmar is no exception. Your long history of a strong legal culture, coupled with your geographic and cultural diversity, will shape the components of your system. Clear policy and strategy are vital, but ultimately
your success in strengthening the judiciary won’t be measured by decisions made here in Nay Pyi Taw alone; it must be meaningful to ordinary people at village and township level. The importance of a predictable, fair and transparent legal regime, that equally protects the rights of foreign investors and village farmers, men and women, children and adults, victims of crime and those
accused of wrongdoing, citizens and officials alike, cannot be overstated.

UNDP is proud to be your partner in this vital endeavor to improve the well being of all of Myanmar's people. I wish you all very rich discussions over the course of this seminar, and am very much looking forward to learning the outcomes.

Thank you very much. Je zu tin  bar del.

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