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Time to recap as UN celebrates world day of social justice for all

Opinion piece by Advocate Shafie Ameermia, SAHRC Commissioner responsible for Access to Justice and Housing.

The General Assembly proclaimed February 20 as World Day of Social Justice in 2007. It invited member states to devote the day to promoting national activities in accordance with the objectives and goals of the World Summit for Social Development and the 24th session of the General Assembly.

The summit reiterated that social justice, equality and equity constitute the fundamental values of all societies. To achieve “a society for all”, the member states pledged to create programmatic actions to promote social justice in their jurisdictions. As South Africa celebrates this day, it is time to look at how far we have gone as a country to achieve social justice for all.

The celebrations of the world day of social justice come at a time when the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the UN came into force in January 2016.

The importance of a self-standing goal on access to justice becomes clear in the context of the African continent, where most people are unable to claim their rights. Because they lack financial means, they remain vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
Therefore, in including a standalone goal on access to justice, the SDGs have given teeth to the other goals encapsulated in this framework. For example, goal 6 refers to the need for everyone to have access to clean water and sanitation. The inclusion of the goal on access to justice will serve to protect and shield those who have hitherto not enjoyed such benefits, from being further deprived to enjoy such rights.

Further, a stand-alone goal will now serve as an enforcement mechanism for people living in poverty to ensure that exploitation by powerful public or private actors, is prevented. The adoption and coming into force of the SDGs presents an entry point for the South African Human Rights Commission in its capacity as a National Human Rights Institution. The commission, in terms of the SDGs, will continue to play its role to promote human rights in the country by engaging with the government to ensure that nationally tailored targets are human rights centred.

The commission will continue to monitor and hold government to account for poor or uneven progress in the attainment of the SDGs, simultaneously striving to secure redress for victims of human rights violations. Further, the adoption of the SDGs, particularly goal 16, which envisages access to justice for all, provides an opportune moment for a rethink on the importance of the community advice offices in our country.

Community advice offices are one of the avenues utilised by communities to access justice. Community advice offices operate in remote areas, serving as conduits for the indigent and marginalized communities to access justice.
These community advice offices, staffed by paralegals, deal hands-on with the problems vulnerable and
marginalised people face on a daily basis, and thus they constitute a vital component in access to justice.
In light of the fact that Legal Aid South Africa predominantly takes on criminal matters, paralegals in community advice offices fill the lacuna apropos civil legal matters.

Notwithstanding such good work, community advice offices continue to be hamstrung by insufficient funding.
Therefore, to ensure that access to justice transcends from being a rhetorical expression to a lived reality, there is a need for the community advice offices to be adequately capacitated as they form a key component in the attainment of social justice for communities they serve. The SDGs are the vehicle to the future we want. A future where everyone will be free from want, free from poverty and free from hunger.

However, to ward off the criticism that the SDGs are idealistic, the buck ultimately stops with the state. The state should do more to ensure that these goals are implemented.

Otherwise without implementation this new vehicle, which is the SDGs, may not take us to the future we want.
After all, it was South Africa, who chaired the Group of 77 nations in the UN General Assembly and, supported by China, moved for the adoption of the SDGs.

This opinion piece appeared on Sunday Independent, 21 February 2016.

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