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Press Release


  June 13, 2008

Making the Law Work for Everyone, a publication of the Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor, was launched at the Organization of American States (OAS) on Friday, amidst calls for new international norms, standards, values and processes to redress the widening gap between the hemisphere’s “haves” and the “have-nots.”

OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza opened the Ninth OAS Policy Roundtable at which the Report was launched, stating the basics of the case as regards the lack of access to justice in Latin America and the Caribbean; the situation of exclusion for a significant portion of the world’s population; and the right to identity in a situation where legal and judicial systems are very poor and there is a lack of access to the very basic necessities.

“When you are poor in our region, you can be marginalized, you can be excluded,” Insulza told the audience at the launch of the 94-page report by the Commission, an independent body of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). He stressed how the poor are ignored and forgotten by the institutions and by those who run legal and political systems. The poor of the Americas “don’t see how their rights are respected under the law,” Secretary General Insulza argued.

Madeleine K. Albright, the former United States Secretary of State who is Co-chair of the Commission, presented the Report, explaining that the UNDP body she co-chairs with Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto was established precisely because worldwide, some 4 billion people “are outside of the system where the law can work for them.” She cited a range of issues such as identity, inheritance laws and the denial of access to justice that make it much harder for the poor to escape the horrors and problems of poverty, leading to a vicious cycle. “Governments do not know how to really get the people that are outside the system into the system,” Albright asserted, observing as well that the poor are generally not active members of an economic system: “They then don’t pay taxes; then, also, the government doesn’t have money to provide social services or build the infrastructure, and so it really is a very vicious circle.”

According to US Supreme Court Associate Justice and Commission member Anthony Kennedy, part of the problem is that the law is viewed as an instrument of repression and not of promise, and this has to change. “This is dangerous; it is destabilizing; it’s a philosophy of despair. The poor are not stupid, so if the law does not accommodate their need they have to work without it,” remarked Justice Kennedy, as he detailed examples of how the law makes it difficult for those without resources. “We have to begin asking how to reform the law in a meaningful way. We have to find things that work,” he concluded.

In his comments, Ambassador Roberto Alvarez, Permanent Representative of the Dominican Republic to the OAS and Chair of the OAS Committee on Juridical and Political Affairs, stressed tackling exclusion through a comprehensive agenda for the legal empowerment of the poor based on access to justice and the rule of law, property rights, labor rights and the right to pursue commercial activities. He called for “intelligent public policies” to empower the hemisphere’s citizens.

For Naresh Singh, Executive Director of the Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor, the main challenge is how to get the excluded to become shareholders in the economy and thereby reduce the inequity gap. He suggested that particular attention be paid to indigenous groups, women and children, and proposed among others, the need for new international standards, values, and process, through such institutions as the OAS, which he viewed as itself having many instruments for the legal empowerment of the poor. He also called for the integration of legal empowerment instruments into the OAS’ action program, in partnership with the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank and other institutions.

Scott White, the World Bank’s Acting General Counsel, listed many of the Bank’s successful projects, programs and experiences to provide legal empowerment of the poor, including in Haiti, Bolivia, Indonesia, and Egypt. He also noted a range of programs to recognize and protect community and indigenous tenure rights of the forest areas. “These experiences highlight the urgency of embedding our programs within a strong legal empowerment framework.”

White said the World Bank has developed a proposed agenda to engage in research analysis and collect empirical data targeting key thematic areas and cross-cutting themes related to legal empowerment of the poor. This analysis would then be translated into practical tools and guidelines for World Bank operations, he stated.

Reference: E-235/08