The public health, economic, and rule of law crises that have struck the world over the last year have highlighted the need for effective solutions to pressing justice problems in the region. Latin America, in particular, has been hard hit, having one of the highest COVID-19 death rates in the world.
Along with the dire health effects of COVID-19, the region is facing elevated levels of poverty and inequality. The UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) predicts that COVID-19 will result in the worst recession in the region in a century, pushing around 73 million people into poverty or extreme poverty. These trends will likely worsen due to pervasive corruption and weak institutional infrastructures that fail to provide public health, justice, and economic resources to the most vulnerable populations.
Even before the pandemic, the region was struggling to address rising corruption and authoritarian tendencies. According to the WJP Rule of Law Index 2020, significantly more countries declined than increased in their scores for the factors that measure constraints on government powers and absence of corruption over the previous year.
These challenges, however, have not been ignored by civil society, governments, and international donors in the region. As illustrated in WJP’s regional showcase, LAC finalists for the World Justice Challenge 2021: Advancing the Rule of Law in a Time of Crisis are offering powerful examples of how to address these rule of law issues to ensure that the region builds back better from the pandemic.
On March 24, WJP brought together a group of regional experts and local changemakers to discuss challenges in the region and solutions to address them (right).
Ursula Indacochea, Program Director at the Due Process of Law Foundation (DPLF) began the panel discussion by highlighting the unique rule of law challenges the Latin America and Caribbean region is facing. She emphasized that COVID-19 has set back democratic and rule of law practices, with many executive branches of government concentrating power and sidelining checks and balances.
New laws allowed for increased restrictions on key political rights, particularly encroaching on freedom of assembly and expression. Furthermore, the declared states of emergency led to the paralysis or reduction of operations by the justice systems. Those that were already facing precarious situations prior to the pandemic, including those in poverty, women, and minorities, were left to bear the brunt of the pandemic with little support.
Melina Risso, Programs Director at Igarapé Institute, spoke about the specific context of Brazil. The country has suffered more than 300,000 deaths due to COVID-19 and has gone through three health ministers over the last year. Melina highlighted that Brazil is in a complicated situation in which the president has not emphasized the danger of the pandemic enough, while also taking advantage of the emergency to close civic space and repress opposition. The government has used a national security law to detain, investigate, and harass the press and critics. Additionally, police violence has increased drastically, with Rio de Janeiro seeing its highest recorded number of deaths by police forces in April 2020, when the majority of people were quarantined or isolated. Many of those killed were humanitarian and aid workers providing food, water, and sanitation supplies to those in the community. Brazil’s president has also threatened public security by lessening regulations on firearms and encouraging individuals to disobey local quarantine laws. These developments suggest that the pandemic has aggravated the country’s already declining rule of law landscape: according to WJP Rule of Law Index data, Brazil’s score on constraints on government power and fundamental rights declined by 5% and 7% respectively from 2019 to 2020.
The global pandemic strikes in a region already seeing worrisome trends, risking further erosion of the rule of law. Amidst increasing discrimination and inequality, regional justice advocates and activists have risen to the occasion to promote accountable governance, equality, and access to justice. From creating virtual legal tools to monitoring emergency service procurements, World Justice Challenge finalists have worked to address key rule of law issues in the region.
An Epidemic of Corruption
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Latin America and Caribbean region had been experiencing an epidemic of corruption. Only 36% of countries in the region scored above the global average in the WJP Rule of Law Index 2020 for the factor measuring corruption. In the face of public health and economic crises, many governments passed emergency procedures that prioritized quick responses over transparency and accountability. This sense of urgency, combined with generous stimulus packages, has heightened the risks of corruption and lack of control over when and where supplies and services are provided.
In Honduras, a country that already had one of the lowest corruption scores in the region in 2020 , there was a need for stronger accountability and transparency mechanisms in response to the pandemic. To support this need, Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa (the Association for a More Just Society - ASJ) created a social audit mechanism to track emergency purchases of supplies and services. ASJ documented serious issues with overpriced services and supplies, late delivery times, and cancelled supplies without warning, leading to the resignation of the senior government official responsible for emergency procurements and the implementation of stricter policies. Similarly, in Argentina, Poder Ciudadano created a database that monitors national emergency procurements to determine areas of risk, promote practices that increase social control and transparency of public emergency funds, and ensures the proper authorities are able to pursue situations in which public funds are misused or mismanaged.
Protecting the Rights of the Most Vulnerable
The COVID-19 pandemic has raised concerns over discrimination and unequal access to health services as well as given authoritarian-leaning governments the opportunity to crack down on essential rights. In Latin America, minority populations, such as women and people of African and indigenous descent, were disproportionately impacted. In particular, the region is facing sharp rises in domestic violence. For instance, Chile and Mexico have seen a 50% increase in calls to emergency helplines. Because of strict lockdowns during the pandemic, millions of women are stuck at home with their abusers and are unable to access public services, heightening the need for more support for women victims. In response, UNDP Mexico and UN Women in Mexico worked with local governments to create protocols and mechanisms that provided emergency services and socioeconomic support for victims and designed a 911 hotline specifically for at-risk women.
Indigenous women in particular faced unique challenges given their limited access to social protection and health services, and high levels of discrimination. The Women’s Justice Initiative created a project to increase access to justice in 12 rural communities of Mayan Kaqchikel women in Guatemala through legal training and support, community advisers, and increasing of community resources and the capacity of local officials to improve responses to cases of violence against women. Furthermore, the diversion of government resources to health sectors and relaxation of environmental legislation left indigenous populations and their land unprotected, opening them up to attacks, abuse, and harassment. In Peru, Forest People's Programme, The Federation of Native Communities of Ucayali, and The Institute of Legal Defense used national and international legal mechanisms to provide greater protection of indigenous lands and human rights defenders, and to suspend the operations of a nearby palm oil company, while seeking to hold them accountable for exposing local communities to the contagion.
The transmission rate of COVID-19 caused immediate concerns all over the world regarding the protection of prisoners. Brazil’s prison system in particular has faced systemic issues of overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, as acknowledged by the Supreme Court in 2016. COVID-19 has exacerbated this issue, yet governments have focused more on public security and have suspended visits and basic services. To ensure a fair response, the Conselho Nacional de Justiça (CNJ), with support from UNDP and the Making Justice Program, approved a formal recommendation in March 2020 to incentivize judges to review cases with a focus on urgent releases and to provide technical support to prisons to ensure the rights and safety of prisoners. Because of this recommendation, 40,000 people were emergency released and the recommendation was cited by 72% of local court regulations.
Ensuring Access to Justice in a Time of Crisis
Across Latin America and the Caribbean, courts have been unable to operate at full capacity, encroaching on important rights such as access to justice in a fair and timely manner. The pandemic both deepened preexisting problems and brought about new legal challenges. In Ecuador and Colombia, which already score low in WJP’s 2020 Index for civil and criminal justice, judicial institutions acted quickly to ensure a proper response to rising justice needs. As emergency laws and regulations restricted access to justice, the Colombian Ministry of Justice created LegalApp, a digital tool to guide individuals on how to access formal and alternative justice processes. This “Google Jurídico” (judicial Google) tool explains in basic terms how an individual can access various justice entities and details the legal process. Furthermore, based on their location and case issue, the website connects individuals with university legal clinics and has a virtual chat for women victims of violence to privately access immediate help. In Ecuador, the Constitutional Court created the SACC (Constitutional Court Automatized System) mechanism to ensure access to the courts during extreme circumstances, such as COVID-19, and especially for vulnerable populations. In the first phase, which was recently completed, the Court developed an online platform to promote efficiency and transparency by allowing for easier access of documents, automatically assigning cases, and hosting virtual hearings with public audiences. This new platform resulted in 100% of cases being randomly assigned, limiting bias and corruption, and a 40% reduction in case-time.
You can read more about each project on the World Justice Challenge website or watch the event recording for the Latin America and the Caribbean Finalists Regional Showcase, where project representatives summarized their innovative solutions to the challenges of COVID-19.
1 WJP’s 2020 Index shows that from 2019 – 2020, 20 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean saw their scores decline for Factor 1 and 21 countries saw their scores decline for Factor 2.
2 In WJP’s 2020 Index, Honduras ranked 27/30 for the Latin America and Caribbean region for its Factor 2 (Absence of Corruption) score.
3 According to WJP’s 2020 Index, Ecuador scored 0.49 and 0.36 for Civil and Criminal Justice respectively. Colombia scored 0.49 and 0.34 for Factor 7 and 8 respectively. Both score below the global and regional averages.