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World Justice Forum III

Cherie Blair, Barcelona, 20 June 2011

"Law touches every part of our lives."

Your Excellencies, Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen.

First let me thank you for the opportunity to open this event. I spoke at the very first World Justice Forum in 2008 on the subject of access to justice, and was truly inspired by the ambition and enthusiasm of everyone involved. Three years later you are going from strength-to-strength, leading the agenda on justice and rule of law debate and policy. It is a privilege to be here tonight.

I have been a lawyer in the UK for over 35 years. During this time, from a young female barrister (few and far between in those days) to a QC and now also a judge, one belief has been at the core of everything I have done. It is a belief I am here to re-affirm tonight: law can change the world.

For the lawyers in the room, this may not seem a particularly radical concept. As a profession, we are not known for a lack of confidence or self belief - some might say too much self belief at times! But for those who are not grappling with legal issues on a daily basis, the idea that law can have a transformative effect on big, global issues - political stability, aid delivery, gender inequality - often seems abstract.

Law touches every part of our lives. The late, great Lord Bingham, a pioneer of human rights law, once described the rule of law as “one of the world’s great unifying factors, perhaps the greatest”. But for many this is only an invisible reality. We must not underestimate how dangerous this is. If the public at large does not value the rule of law, understand its application and appreciate the freedoms it bestows, they are immediately weakened. So my challenge to you all for the next 3 days is this: let’s do a better job of explaining why law is so important.

Now this isn’t an easy sell. In an age when the public imagination is used to short, sharp messages (Tweets in less than 140 characters, Facebook in just one line) theory can only go so far. We need practical, vivid examples of where the rule of law can make a dramatic difference. Take recent events in North Africa. The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have given hope to millions across the Continent. A strong and insistent democratic voice has ushered in the hope of a new age of self determination, an age where a ruling elite deaf to the needs of its people won’t last for long. But without good laws, this hope will never translate into reality. It is the lawyers who will draft the new constitutions, establish independent judiciaries to hold the executive to account, insist on fairness and transparency in state affairs. Unelected leaders hold on to power because they suffocate the operation of justice.

Of course this isn’t a new idea. Thomas Fuller, an English 17th century cleric - in fact a favourite of Lord Bingham - once wrote "Be you never so high, the law is above you". But every time a country fails to elevate the rule of law to a position of strength, to establish a healthy tension between the state and the judiciary, civil liberty is put at risk.

We need to take law out of the abstract and explain to the people of nascent democracies like Egypt and Tunisia that law is their hope, the life blood which will sustain the momentous progress of recent months.

Law also has a crucial role to play in the field of aid and international development. Again, though, its power in this area is all too often neglected. Look again at Africa. For decades the aid agenda has focussed on water, food, physical infrastructure. Of course all of these are important, but for sustainable and long term development we need to provide intellectual capital. That’s why 3 years ago I co-founded a new charity, the Africa Justice Foundation, which works with African Governments to strengthen their legal capacity.

Through travels in Africa with my husband during his time in 10 Downing St, I met the Presidents and First Ladies of many incredible countries. They were ambitious for change, but told me that inward investment was being restricted by an absence of good business laws and the lawyers to delivery them. What company wants to invest in a country if their money won’t be safe? How can a transaction be correctly structured if the Government’s lawyers aren’t sitting as equals at the negotiating table? How can corruption be challenged without transparent and fair business protocol?

In 2008 we started in Rwanda, a country where tragically most lawyers were killed during the genocide. Through our Scholarship Scheme we provided masters courses in commercial law and legislative drafting at leading UK universities to senior Ministry of Justice lawyers. The focus is to improve negotiating skills, provide grounding in international law and give each Scholar the confidence to stand proud on the world stage. In 2010, the World Bank recognised Rwanda as one of the world’s leading reform economies, in part achieved by legislative changes brought about by our lawyers. The result of our work has been a small but important contribution to the development of a country. This year, we hope to extend our Scholarship Scheme to Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Ghana.

Needless to say, the ambitious plans of the Africa Justice Foundations rely on the generosity of donors. Which again brings me back to the point of making sure that we convince the wider world of the transformative effect of the law. Giving the gift of knowledge to lawmakers may not make the headlines. We’re not offering an immediate win. But in years to come the strong business laws these lawyers create, the efficient processes they enshrine in legislation, the inward investment they encourage, will benefit by millions.
What I have also learnt from my work with the Africa Justice Foundation is that lawyers cannot effect change without partnership. Good laws are not only in the interest of the Governments, but also the Corporates looking to expand into the Continent and build sustainable relationships there. We work hand in hand with business.

On a larger scale, this is why the multi-disciplinary approach of the World Justice Project, and our work over the following days, is so crucial. By forging rule of law links between communities, governments, action groups, businesses and policy makers, we gain strength in numbers. Activism needs collaboration to succeed.

We are all familiar with Shakespeare’s Henry VI. When in the fourth act the anarchists are looking to wreak havoc on the state, their refrain is to “kill all the lawyers”. This usually strikes a chord with the audience who are responding to a caricature of the lawyer as fat cat at best or corrupt at worst. But I would like to believe that Shakespeare was reflecting a deeper truth about lawyers who uphold the rule of law as obstructing the bway of tyrants. Lawyers like Javid Houtan Kian in Iran who represented Salurieh Ashtiani the women sentenced to be stoned to death for adultery last year, who is now imprison himself. Or Beatrice Mtetwa of Zimbabwe constantly battling against the excesses of the tyrannical Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe and the many people here in this room who stand up for the rule of law. These people, these lawyers strive to bring stability to the country and hold its leaders to account. But alone they are too easily identified, and because of this, vulnerable. By working together, building links between professional and non governmental groups, strengthening the common understanding of why justice is not negotiable and by inserting sound legal principles into every strand of social action, we can form a collective voice which cannot be silenced. It is our duty to show that resistance by governments to justice is not just a threat to a profession, but a bar to democracy, a restriction on civil liberty, an attack on each and every Citizen.

Over the next few days we will hear about some inspirational projects and meet brilliant people. We have a unique and potent opportunity to pool our insights and share our ideas with stakeholders from all parts of society.

But after our sessions are over, our determination renewed and new friendships made, remember the duty that all of us have. Law can change the world. And it’s up to each and every one of us to spread the message both within these walls and beyond.

Thank you.