Congratulations to Sara Wajid and Zak Mensah on being appointed CEOs of the Birmingham Museums Trust, together! In many ways, this is a historic appointment. I like it that with two great communicators sharing this role, we will have twice the opportunity to learn from their experience. Break a leg, to both of you!
Thank you for having opened this email (or link)! In the first newsletter, I said how I hope these mailings can replace some of my lost time on stage. Conversations at conferences and meetings help me shape my thoughts and learn from my audience’s different perspectives. Your replies and comments, and suggestions to these emails definitely play this role in a socially-distanced world. Thanks so much.
This email will focus on the broad topic of justice. It is a topic I know very little about. I grew up occasionally watching Law and Order and have vivid memories of seeing A Few Good Men before I understood what it was about. In school, we visited a courthouse just long enough to see a prison sentence upheld longer than my life. Later, TED added a series of lawyer-turned-legal-activist stories to the mix. I now know these experiences give a limited and narrow view of the field of justice. When starting from the right values and in the hands of well-meaning professionals, justice and the law can be powerful tools for people’s well-being and society’s progress.
To this week’s SDG Café, we had invited Sam Muller, founder, and CEO of The Hague Institute for Innovation of Law. We asked him to reflect on the impact of COVID-19 on justice and human rights. First, Sam helped us understand and get an impression of justice in the pre-COVID-19 world by sharing the main findings of Justice For All, a report of the task force on justice. As the report states:
“The 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development is based on a vision of “a just, equitable, tolerant, open and socially inclusive world in which the needs of the most vulnerable are met.” Through the agenda, all countries have made the commitment to build peaceful, just and inclusive societies that provide equal access to justice for all and that are based on respect for fundamental human rights.
“As Martin Luther King told us, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Without justice, we cannot fulfil the promise of the 2030 Agenda to eradicate poverty in all its forms, tackle inequality and promote shared prosperity, and protect the planet from degradation. Justice underpins gender empowerment and helps us reach the furthest behind first.”
However, justice and protection by the law are far from universally accessible. 5.1 billion people — two-thirds of the world’s population — lack meaningful access to justice. Of them, 4.5 billion are excluded from the social, economic, and political opportunities that the law provides. 1.5 billion people have a justice problem they cannot solve, and 253 million people live in extreme conditions of injustice.
Of course, women and children suffer most, with many violence and sexual harassment victims, without any chance of protection. Poor people, people with disabilities, and people from minority ethnic communities are also exceptionally vulnerable and often lack access to justice.
Sam showed how COVID-19 “is magnifying the injustices experienced by people.” Workers in the informal sector are denied fundamental rights and protection, for instance. People experience challenges when it comes to housing (evictions), domestic violence, and family disputes. “In the MENA region and in Sub-Saharan Africa more than 60% of the respondents [in a HiiL study] expect violence as a consequence of the new wave of justice problems.”
Given that justice, even before COVID-19 did not help most people, for justice, going back to ‘normal’ is never going to be enough.
Fortunately, there are solutions. Sam introduced a term new to me and highly promising: justice entrepreneurship. Every year, HiiL organizes an Innovating Justice Challenge, which sees hundreds of startups apply. The innovations that have been supported over the years make it clear both how invisible justice is once you have it, and how easy it is to exclude people from having justice if you’re in power.
With 5.1 billion people lacking meaningful access to justice, injustice reasonably exists in virtually every community, not only in the global South. Think about evictions that happen during COVID-19, the precarious job situation of many people, and the inadequate access to justice resources for many even in the developed world.
Given that justice and injustice are so prevalent, I’m surprised by how few exhibitions and programming in the cultural sectors deal with the topic. There are dedicated justice museums, such as the National Justice Museum in the UK. Other museums address the injustices faced (historically or currently) by specific communities, such as The Hague’s Humanity House. Also, libraries can be seen as resources for justice. Yet I feel this may be a topic where we can play a larger role.
Some reminiscing: In 2018, I worked with the Ripon Museum Trust on a digital strategy. The Trust has three sites, a Workhouse Museum & Garden, the Prison & Police Museum. It aims to tell a story of poverty, law and order, and social justice and invite as many people as possible in this story. Interestingly, although museums such as the RMT’s aim to tell a story of justice, their sites and collections focus predominantly on injustice. The stark contrast between what was considered justice just a few generations ago and what we see as justice now may open people’s minds to other injustices and injustice elsewhere. It certainly did so in Ripon.
On 10/10, I will have a conversation about justice with ten ten-year-olds. I hope our discussion will turn to questions such as who is included and excluded from the law, and whether nature and animals deserve legal rights.
I’m planning to read up and learn more about initiatives such as the Embassy of the North Sea, which aims to give a voice to the things, plants, animals, people in and around the North Sea. If you have any recommendations about must-read books on justice or must-see movies about the law, I’d greatly appreciate those. Thanks and advance!
That’s it for this week. Remember, if you’re in Leiden next Friday the 25th, drop by the Club House for the SDGs. Also that day, the Museum for the United Nations hosts a free and exciting webinar about museums as agents for change. No doubt, this will be things to reflect on and write about for next week. Until then, stay safe and take care. All the best!