Sustainable Development Goal 16 is about peace and justice. The new UN report, entitled “Business and SDG 16” elaborates on the critical role the private sector can and should play in creating better platforms for justice and societal stability and, through these, more peaceable societies. And much of the most important content of the report concerns the rule of law and lawyers.
“”SDG 16 is not just about war, where governments have the greatest responsibility, but about violent conflict of every kind, ranging from domestic violence to military occupation, where the private sector has a great responsibility for sustainable social stability that is the indispensable pre-condition for peace.” The report explores the the seeming tensions between profitability and engagement with SDG 16, and describes the ethical basis for taking the initiative in favor of the rule of law, diversity, anti-corruption efforts, transparency and what it calls “legal philanthropy”. The report provides dozens of examples of company projects and collaborations with government and other NGOs.
The report describes the inverse connection between justice and violence early and often, emphasizing the central role that justice plays in the suppression of violence. “It was no accident that SDG 16 combined together the aspirations toward peace and toward justice.” Indeed, the report is emphatic about the connection: “The idea of a fair rule of law permeates the three elements of SDG 16: peace, justice and institutional strength. The reason is simple: Societies invent rules of law to suppress violence. This being true, then its converse must also be true: Societies without rules of law must descend to violence. And they do; this is perhaps the main recurring theme of human history. Violence and justice are opposites, and when justice cannot be done, violence step into the breach.”
The report asks the private sector, first and foremost, to “avoid undermining institutions that ameliorate conflict even though some local or transient interest may be served by doing so.” And it is not shy about diagnosing the problem in certain quarters of the private sector: “This phenomenon is not limited to the developing world and, indeed, takes its most aggressive and destructive forms within the seemingly sturdy legal and sociological infrastructure of developed nations. It takes the form of attacks on judges and journalists (both physical and philosophical), attempts to undermine judicial independence, corruption and attempts to rig the system (as well as false charges that unbiased systems are somehow rigged). It includes various methods to create unequal playing fields. And perhaps most insidiously, it takes the form of sophisticated rhetorical assaults on the very legitimacy of the complex governing infrastructure that upholds and implements the law.”
The report therefore sponsors the adoption of a broad approach to cementing a practicable rule of law in societies, one that includes access to justice for all and broad legitimacy through diversity of participation. “Without a disputant-neutral and rational means of dispute resolution, the rest of SDG 16, and perhaps the SDGs in general, cannot be implemented.” And the report also calls, more than once, for respect for the apparatus of conflict resolution (i.e., the justice system), and a return to basic decency and good manners among participants in the system. “The possibilities for constructive dialogue can begin with the simple idea of mutual respect. Many companies can and do advocate for their positions without demonizing those who disagree, and without undermining the credibility of other segments of society. Elevating the dialogue in this manner may well rebound to the long-term benefit of companies who develop a reputation for being respectful and fair-minded participants in institutional decision-making processes.” The report suggest that SDG 16 is, in effect, “an ethical injunction to the private sector to collaborate with national governments to enhance the rule of law, build strong and inclusive and transparent institutions, and respect the processes of dispute resolution and amelioration (and all parties participating in such processes).”
The report notes the obvious fact that “private sector philanthropy rarely focuses on justice systems or on the basic elements of the rule of law, which are the foundational elements of SDG 16. The reasons for this are complex. It appears that the private sector tends to defer to governments almost entirely on questions implicating the rule of law, seeing its own role as mainly advocating for particular legal outcomes rather than supporting the fairness and impartiality of the legal system itself. Itpreferstonotbeseenasinterferinginbasicgovernment functions like the delivery of justice through the courts, and has no pro bono tradition akin to the legal profession.” It therefore asks the private sector to reconsider its approach, and to support projects to enhance fair dispute resolution and the infrastructure of the rule of law.
As a potential model, the report points to law firms and corporate counsel as leaders in effective legal philanthropy, with the model of public service established in most large international law firms leading the way. “The result of this pro bono ethic has been the delivery of billions of dollars of legal support to vulnerable groups who need it most and cannot afford it, involving the participation of hundreds of thousands of private sector lawyers.” The report urges corporate legal departments to accelerate the recent trend toward corporate pro bono work, and requests corporations to include “legal philanthropy” among their priorities.
The private sector must enable conditions for progress, realizing that these are not antithetical to its interests: they include inclusive decision-making, outspoken opposition to corruption and those who purvey it, support for the rule of law (even when opportunities arise to manipulate the rule of law), truthful disclosure and an ethic of support for justice akin to the pro bono efforts of the organized bar and consistent with the ethic of corporate philanthropy.
In its conclusion, the report summarizes the role of the private sector in the pursuit of peace and justice: “Modern societal stability is no longer a zero-sum game, if it ever was. Progress along the SDG 16 framework toward violence reduction and toward justice requires good faith collaborations among constituencies who have not always been friends, and a competitive desire to win is not going to be a solution. SDG 16 requires, clearly, a reduction of disputes between the private sector and others, and a means to conduct dignified dialogue, with the fullest transparency, among people and institutions that have varying interests. SDG 16, and this report, are premised on the idea that self-interest and disagreements are inevitable, but solutions come from win-win opportunities designed by people who want solutions more than they want victories.”