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A Joint Program of Eurasia Foundation and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland Under the Wider Europe Initiative
Eurasia Foundation is implementing a 30-month program designed to increase access to justice for vulnerable populations in Central Asia, in particular for rural women, at-risk children and persons with disabilities. The “Equal Before the Law: Access to Justice in Central Asia Program,” abbreviated EBL, is a joint program of Eurasia Foundation and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland under the social sustainability priority of Finland’s Wider Europe Initiative.
The program takes its name from Section 6 of the Finnish Constitution, which begins with the assertion that “everyone is equal before the law.” The EBL program seeks to bring this affirmation closer to reality for the citizens of Central Asia in two key dimensions: first, by strengthening the links between international norms and national law; and second, by analyzing and improving the way national laws are experienced by vulnerable citizens. Targeting interventions simultaneously at the state and citizen levels will ensure the program delivers concrete results in the lives of vulnerable people while assisting governments in the region to meet the needs of citizens and fulfill state obligations under international agreements. The program envisions eight blocks of activities, illustrated below.
EBL builds on extensive research and analysis of current rule of law efforts in designing its intervention strategy, and seeks to extend and reinforce efforts by European and other donors in strengthening access to justice.
At the grassroots level, the program will reach more than 100,000 people through legal consultations, community-based trainings and outreach activities. Along with continued research and targeted interventions, these activities at the citizen level will be matched with engagement at the government level to strengthen the translation of international norms into national law, and enhance the protection of vulnerable people in the application of national law by government officials and officers of the court.
From September 2010 to February 2011, EF undertook a variety of activities to provide in-depth background for the EBL program. It conducted research that included a survey of 1,926 households in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, nine focus groups of women and youth, and 74 expert interviews. EF held a roundtable on February 15 in Almaty where senior Finnish government officials could hear directly from colleagues from those three countries, plus Uzbekistan. The research conducted supports the following premise: To increase access to justice for vulnerable groups, it is necessary not only to address deficiencies with courts, law enforcement and legal advocates, but also to support interventions outside the court system, such as raising awareness of legal rights and providing assistance with securing legal documents, for instance marriage certificates, birth certificates and legal domicile registration (the propiska.)
The overall objective of the EBL program is to increase access to justice for vulnerable populations, in particular rural women, at-risk children and people with disabilities. To contribute to this overall objective, the initiative’s activities will be structured in line with the following program purposes:
- Increase the alignment of national law and practices with international law and best practices
- Increase citizens’ ability to access national law to defend their rights and interests
The ELB program seeks to assist vulnerable groups, with a focus on rural women, children and youth, and people with disabilities, while endeavoring to improve equality for all.
Approach and Strategy
International conventions and internationally recognized best practices provide an objective framework for Central Asian governments to improve access to justice and equal treatment under the law. Via legislation at the national level, Central Asian governments have managed to integrate many international norms relevant to vulnerable populations into their legal codes. However, high principles enshrined in national law are not always reflected in the experience of ordinary citizens, in particular vulnerable people, in dealing with their own governments and courts.
EBL therefore proposes to research and monitor the transmission and application of international norms as experienced by the most vulnerable members of society in cooperation with host government agencies, NGOs and international donors already engaged in this work. EBL will provide training and technical assistance to government officials and court officers to improve their understanding and implementation of national laws reflecting these international norms. At the individual level EBL will research barriers to justice, encourage dialogue among stakeholders to design appropriate interventions to remove such barriers. It will build a demand for more positive changes.
EBL will execute a set of activities to monitor the adoption of international law and standards at the national level. These activities, listed below, should be feasible in all five Central Asian countries.
- Assist governments in preparing reports and civil society organizations in preparing alternative reports to conventions concerning access to justice, as appropriate based on the activities of other donors
- Train court and government officials and national level civic advocates on international best practices
- Improve law school curricula and professional training for lawyers practicing in the service of vulnerable people
While engagement at the national level will assist the government machinery to react to the needs of citizens in accordance with sovereign commitments under international agreements, activities aimed at exposing and remediating deficiencies at the level of an individual’s experience of the justice system will benefit citizens – particularly vulnerable ones – while reinforcing understanding of the impact of government action and effectiveness of EBL interventions at the state level. The list below outlines these activities.
- Research barriers to justice
- Remove barriers to justice through easing registration of residence and marriage
- Train regional NGOs on legal principles and support their assistance of target groups
- Encourage governments to improve the provision of free legal assistance to vulnerable people
- Provide small grants to support innovative ideas and respond to opportunities as they arise
As with the research conducted in the preparatory phase of the program, EBL gives primacy to the perspective of the citizen: how they experience access to justice and what barriers they encounter, not just in the courts, but also in their communities and even in their own knowledge and attitudes about their rights. EF believes that this is necessary to ensure that international principles are carried out in real life.
In line with Finnish development policy, EBL zeroes in on the cross-cutting objectives of promoting the rights and equality of women and girls, and the rights of people who are easily excluded, particularly children and persons with disabilities.
EBL focuses on sustainable interventions through improving legal education, supporting host-government efforts already underway, assisting citizens with overcoming one-time hurdles in the form of document registration, and working with governments and other donors to reduce other barriers to access to justice. Government-funded provision of legal aid must be included in this list, as it is a major component of access to justice for the vulnerable people who are the main beneficiaries of EBL.
Composition of the Program
In Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, national-level steering committees combining government, civil society and donor representatives – including EU program officers – will ensure coordination with ongoing efforts and help the program react to changes and opportunities in the field.
Civil society organizations will be organized and assisted through national-level EBL networks in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. If the opportunity arises, EBL may conduct some of the activities listed below in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan as well.
EF will select one hub NGO in each city (Almaty, Bishkek and Dushanbe) to act as consultants and service providers to a network of civil society organizations that work with vulnerable groups. EF will competitively select the hub NGOs and conduct thorough due diligence, this being the best way to lay a strong foundation for a complex program.
Once selected, each hub NGO will receive organizational development assistance from EF to strengthen its internal systems and to enhance its work and project management capacities. EF will use its proprietary Capacity Mapping Assessment for advanced NGOs to identify each organization’s strengths and weaknesses. Based on the findings, EF specialists will provide targeted organizational development assistance. This assistance will most likely include financial management, as the NGOs will be managing grants and subgrants; fundraising, to increase the organization’s sustainability; and monitoring and evaluation to improve its project management.
In addition to helping ensure smoother program implementation, the capacity building will strengthen NGOs that have already demonstrated a commitment to improving access to justice, helping them to continue to grow institutionally and deliver results after the EBL program ends.
EF will open membership in the EBL network to any civil society organization (CSO) working with vulnerable groups, with an emphasis on rural CSOs. One factor to be considered in selecting network CSOs will be where they are based; EF will select organizations that can fill known geographic gaps.