Lao CSOs and the donors’ “access to justice” agenda

CSOs could consider engaging with the emerging ‘Access to Justice’ framework of cooperation between Government of Laos and the Development Partners. Partly reflecting the Rights Based Approach mentioned above, Development Partners increasingly prefer an Access to Justice approach rather than a narrow focus on capacity development for Government of Laos institutions in the justice sector. Access to Justice is for example one of the three components of the EU-Swiss-German governance and human rights programme expected to start a four year implementation in May 2016. It is also reflected in the draft proposals for a successor programme to the Legal Sector Master Plan.

Opportunities for CSO provision of legal information and paralegal advice to citizens have increased in recent years. The Ministry of Justice, UNDP and Asia Foundation are cooperating to support and monitor five pilot initiatives in provincial capitals, representing different modalities of legal information provision (MoJ, MoJ-CSO, UNDP-CSO, CSO). A participatory evaluation of these pilot projects in 2016 will contribute to the formulation of a Decree on Legal Aid (actually addressing legal information), and a plan for the upscaling of legal information provision nationwide, with provision in all provincial capitals.

Institutionally, the MoJ is likely to hesitate between an attempt to monopolise legal information provision, with non-state actors only engaged in capacity strengthening for state actors, and a multi-stakeholder approach, with the MoJ responsible for authorisation and overall coordination. Development Partners are likely to support the second modality. Only by engaging in this debate can rights-focused CSOs demonstrate the advantages of a multi-stakeholder approach, as well as their willingness to assist the MoJ with its ambitious plan to roll out nationwide provision over the next few years.

In recent years, incidents of government intervention to restrict provision of legal information were mostly associated with activities perceived by local authorities as ‘campaigns’ raising awareness among rights holders, leading to ‘disruption of harmony’ when these assert their rights. The objection is mostly at local level, desire for ‘quiet life’ and connected to the ‘case free village’ policy. Such campaigns are possible but must be carefully prepared and negotiated with the authorities and community leaders, requiring a significant preparation time and high risk of delays or interruption of in implementation. Some CSOs have explored opportunities to avoid such objections by the authorities by focusing on a less location-specific diffusion of information about rights through radio and increasingly social media. Social media in particular do not currently require the same extent of permission. There is a theme of reporting of abuses and scandals on social media. This can be levered in campaigns on how citizens can protect themselves against abuse, and what to do if they become aware of abuse or become victims of it. The central authorities do not object to the diffusion of legal information as such, and only a large number of local complaints would be likely to result in an intervention of the central authorities against social media initiatives.

There is also tremendous potential for CSOs to engage with village leaders and communities on access to justice issues around the VMU and child welfare committee. Some CSOs have however expressed doubts about the possibility to make these structures functional, which is still not the case in most communities despite years of capacity strengthening initiatives. The Government of Laos perceives a huge capacity gap, which would extend indefinitely into the future. CSOs may wish to lever this opportunity to engage at a local level to support awareness-raising among duty bearers and rights holders. Those CSOs who perceive the current committee structure as dysfunctional for justice and protection issues, may also wish to engage so as to generate evidence-based arguments for alternatives (such as provision at district level, and development of multi-stakeholder gender and/or child protection networks.

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