On 13 November 2014 at the United Nations, the Permanent Missions of Afghanistan, South Africa and the United States to the United Nations, the Rule of Law Unit (on behalf of the UN Rule of Law Coordination and Resource Group) and the International Legal Foundation co-organized a panel discussion on “Enhancing Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems”. The panel featured H.E. Ambassador Zahir Tanin, Permanent Representative of Afghanistan to the UN, the Hon. Judge Dunstan Mlambo, President of the Gauteng Division of the High Court of South Africa and Chair of the Board of Directors for Legal Aid South Africa, Judge Lisa Foster, Director of the United States Department of Justice’s Access to Justice Initiative, Ms. Jennifer Smith, Executive Director of the International Legal Foundation. Ms. Simone Monasebian, Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, moderate the discussion.
All panellists stressed the importance of access to legal aid. “No justice system can be credible without legal aid”, said the Hon. Dunstan Mlambo. Ms Foster discussed the establishment of legal aid services across the globe, including in Afghanistan.
Ambassador Tanin explained the historical context of the justice system in Afghanistan and the significant achievements made over the past 10 years to expand access to legal aid services. “Decades of conflict,” he said “rendered Afghanistan’s legal system virtually non-existent.” Now, legal aid is available across all provinces in Afghanistan. A mbassador Tanin emphasised the important role played by international partners, civil society and non-governmental legal aid organizations in expanding access to legal aid.
While significant progress has been made in Afghanistan, many challenges remain. These include lack of awareness about defence rights, financial constraints, scarcity of justice professionals, limited capacity in regional areas and corruption, Ambassador Tanin explained. Moving forward, he noted, “the new government of Afghanistan will prioritize combating corruption and strengthening the rule of law countrywide.” However, the sustained support of the international community and non-governmental organizations will remain central to these efforts.
Following individual statements, the panellists answered questions from the audience about legal aid provision in conflict and post-conflict settings, understanding legal aid in the development context, and the challenges of monitoring and evaluation activities. The event was well attended by Government representatives, civil society and staff of various United Nation bodies.