1. Access to justice – an introduction
1. Access to justice – an overview
According to international human rights law the state should respect, protect and
promote everyone’s right to freedom of religion or belief without any
discrimination. But we know from experience that many people’s rights are not
respected or protected! So what can we do when freedom of religion or belief is
There are many different ways to work to build more just societies in which
freedom of religion or belief is respected. In the five presentations on access to
justice we are going to focus on how we can use legal systems and institutional
bodies to stop violations of freedom of religion or belief and find justice. On the
website you can also find films and materials that look at other methods and
strategies for working to make freedom of religion or belief a reality such as
advocacy, awareness raising and documenting violations.
So how can you use law and institutions to access justice if your
freedom of religion or belief is violated?
As you might have guessed this is a tricky question to answer at the global level
because the answer depends almost entirely on who you are, what kind of
violations you experience and where you live. That might sound unfair, but there
is a reason for it.
Human rights are meant to be ensured through the actions of the governments
who stated that they would respect, protect and promote them when they signed
human rights conventions. You are meant to be able to turn to local and national
justice systems when your rights are violated. You should have access to justice at
the local and national level.
– Now in some countries justice systems do well in upholding human rights.
– But in many countries there are problems within the justice system, for
example police who refuse to take up minorities’ cases, judges who make
judgements based on their own prejudices rather than the law or really
long waiting times to have cases heard.
– And in some countries the law itself undermines rights as do the
government, police force and judiciary. The entire system actively
So what can we do when we don’t have access to justice at the local and national level?
Once again this depends on where you live. In some parts of the world there are
regional systems to turn to, for example the Inter-American Court of Human
Rights, The African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights or the European Court
of Human Rights. These courts make judgements that are binding upon the state.
At the global level we can also turn to the human rights system of the United
But even though regional courts and global systems can result in binding
judgements against, criticism of and recommendations to a government, these
judgements and recommendations can’t be enforced.
That’s because there is no international police force that can force the
government to change their laws, policies and practices. Human rights law is
often called soft law, precisely because judgements that are binding in theory
can’t be enforced in practice, unless the state chooses to enforce them.
Many governments do want to improve their human rights record and are
sensitive to international criticism. But it’s important to remember that
international human rights law can’t be enforced at the regional and global level
in the way national laws can.
You might be wondering if the United Nations isn’t a global police force given
that the UN Security Council can order military interventions under the UN flag.
In truth there aren’t very many such interventions, partly because the different
political interests of Security Council members make it hard for the council to
agree. And when the Council can agree, troops are only sent in when conflicts
threaten international security. Their job isn’t to make sure human rights treaties
are followed in general.
You might also be wondering if the International Criminal Court, the ICC, isn’t a
global human rights court that can make governments follow human rights. But
the ICC only tries individuals, for example a head of state or a member of the
military, and only for having ordered or committed the most severe and
systematic crimes – genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
History gives us good reason to believe that it is wiser to base the human rights
system on strengthening governments’ home grown commitment and willingness
to change than on military intervention.
The process of building societies that respect, protect and promote human rights
is often long, painful and frustrating. It involves building knowledge of and
respect for human rights in justice systems, in the policies and practices of local
and national authorities and in the minds of ordinary people. It also involves
making human rights a reality through the ACTIONS of people like you and me,
as we respect them in our everyday lives.
Lots of people and organisations are striving to make rights a reality.
In India a coalition of organisations highlighted violence and discrimination
against Christians and Muslims ahead of a United Nations review of how India
upholds human rights. As a result over 20 countries asked the Indian government
questions about freedom of religion or belief during the UN review.
To sum up:
National governments have signed human rights treaties and are thereby
responsible for making sure that human rights are respected in local and national
contexts. So when human rights are violated we should be able to turn to local
and national systems of justice to find remedies.
When these systems don’t work we can also turn to regional or global human
rights courts and systems.
But although international courts and bodies can make binding judgements
against and criticize national governments, international bodies have no way of
forcing governments to stop violating rights and protect people. There is no
international police force to ensure human rights are followed.
For a more in depth look at access to justice at the local, national, regional and
global levels, watch the separate videos on these topics which you can find on the
Copyright SMC 2017
End of Transcript
1. Access to justice – an introduction
This short introduction provides a basis for the other films our Access to Justice series. It highlights how national and international levels relate to one another and builds an understanding of human rights as ‘soft law’ in the international context.