IBJ’s Annual Report 2015-2016
“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s words resonate as much today as they did when he first wrote them over 150 years ago. For those who are arrested, tortured, and imprisoned indefinitely without access to a lawyer, human dignity may seem like an empty aspiration. Prisons remain our society’s darkest corners, places where one’s very humanity may be under threat. In consigning those incarcerated in metal cages to the deepest recesses of our minds, we have chosen to accept the darkness.
This environment of neglect is the space in which IBJ excels. As crystals form in darkness and under pressure, so, too, do IBJ’s courageous defenders perform heroic efforts out of the public eye. Working in the darkest, most unglamorous circumstances, we have shed light on and tackled these painfully inconvenient truths: (1) if you are poor, you cannot afford to pay for a lawyer and (2) without adequate legal representation, you cannot enjoy the full protection of the law.
IBJ sheds light on the forgotten by providing systemic early access to competent legal representation for those accused of a crime. Since I founded IBJ in 2000, our tireless lawyers have pursued a unique approach to deliver free legal assistance to tens of thousands of people in more than 40 countries. We also have impacted over 25 million people through our rights awareness campaigns, roundtables, training workshops, and JusticeMakers program. These accomplishments illustrate an enduring conviction that guides IBJ’s strategy to reduce torture and other abuse: systemic change is crucial to transforming criminal justice systems around the world. The complex infrastructure of criminal justice systems needs to be strengthened at every level to ensure widespread, systematic respect for due process rights. Institutions matter, therefore sustainable change requires improving the systems by which institutions operate.
IBJ is driving broad systemic change to achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16, which is intended to “promote just, peaceful, and inclusive societies.” We are building capacity among lawyers and justice officials on the ground and securing cooperative commitments from senior government officials, human rights organizations, and the private sector. A highlight of our SDG 16 activities is our 2016 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP) made up of 79 countries and regions. IBJ’s partnership with the ACP offers us the opportunity to have unprecedented impact.
This year, we are especially proud to expand IBJ’s activities into the Democratic Republic of Congo. The need for legal assistance in the DRC is profound: 75% of jailed Congolese are in pre-trial detention, meaning they have never had a fair trial. Overcrowding in these facilities poses serious safety and health issues for detainees. Violence at the hands of prison guards and other prisoners places detainees at further risk, all before ever actually having a trial. The conditions are ripe for IBJ’s intervention. In South Kivu, where IBJ started working in June 2016, we are the sole legal aid organization. Having signed an MoU with the Ministry of Justice in the DRC allows us access into prison facilities and paves the way for us to work collaboratively to strengthen rule of law and access to justice.
Safeguarding the rights of the criminally accused is not a glamorous job. It sits at the bottom of our societal priority list, a problem hiding in plain sight. A “band-aid” approach focusing resources and attention on the effects of failed justice systems has become the modus operandi of the international development community. Instead, those resources should be directed towards strengthening justice systems at their core.
The vitriolic and turbulent events of 2016 have highlighted the need for increased access to justice for all. Indeed, we are at a crossroads. We can only achieve SDG 16 through decisive, global collective action. Doing so creates new realities not just for prisoners, but for everyone: Everybody benefits when free individuals are empowered to fully participate in the development process. The darkness is indeed deep, which makes it all the more important that we let our light shine.
Thank you for all you are and all that we are doing together.
Karen I. Tse
Founder and CEO