An interview with Hadeel Abdel Aziz of the Justice Center for Legal Aid

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AMMAN – “In Jordan the law does not protect the right to defense and does not acknowledge the right to legal aid, except in a very small number of cases. JCLA was established to fill that gap and to try to change policies for permanent, sustainable change. We provide legal aid for the poor in Jordan and we also advocate for state-funded legal aid.

At JCLA we understand the importance of legal empowerment, but at the same time we understand that the concept is not very well developed in Jordan. In fact, people are already doing legal empowerment work. They are working with the vulnerable and the poor, trying to protect rights with and without entering the court system. We have legal aid organizations, women’s empowerment organizations and other civil society organizations working on these issues. But many of them have never identified themselves as legal empowerment organizations. It’s because the concept is so under-developed here that they were never framed in that way.

For us, legal empowerment is about translating the law into action, educating people about their rights, and creating a space where those rights are protected, whether or not they go to court. It’s about getting people to practice rights in their daily lives, to make it a tangible thing. Basically, legal empowerment is putting the law in the hands of the average person in the country.

In Jordan, we have huge gaps in legal awareness. For us, legal empowerment is about translating the law into action, educating people about their rights, and creating a space where those rights are protected, whether or not they go to court.

In Jordan, we have huge gaps in legal awareness. That’s why JCLA does lots of legal education, because people here don’t know their rights at all. And it’s not only about the fact of not knowing. There is also a deep lack of understanding. We also have issues with the legal system not being accessible; it is a challenge finding tools that may give people a voice. People need to become more involved in upholding their rights and holding the system accountable, and that is the natural place our efforts are leading to.

This is really it: know your rights, defend them, and know that you have the right to hold people accountable for doing their job or not.

There are many common issues across the Middle East. We miss the rights-based approach. Even if everyone’s needs are being met, it’s not being done systematically and it’s not being done in an accountable manner. It’s ad hoc, based on who you know and what you know and who’s who.

In Jordan, people’s basic rights are met, in fact many of the practices we have are good, but they do not exist in a rights framework. And people aren’t provided with the tools to ask for rights in the court of law. The system we have is one by which the state chooses to provide rights. This must change. For example, many poor people particularly in the rural areas rely on grants for their right to health or right to education.

This cannot go on. In the end, when the government cannot provide such grants, people will erupt. We know that we need to educate the people that using the law to obtain such rights is something they should consider. Even if rights are currently being treated as grants, it does not mean they are not rights. Many of these are natural rights. They are guaranteed in international law and they are guaranteed in the constitution. What we need is laws that will reveal such rights. You’re not creating it, you’re not giving it – this is not a grant. We just need the system to acknowledge rights as rights.

This is really it: know your rights, defend them, and know that you have the right to hold people accountable for doing their job or not.

Someone once told me that when people go to the courts they’re not just interested in winning the case; they are most interested in being heard. That’s what legal empowerment is all about. It’s giving the people the right to be heard.

We inform people that they have certain rights. We then explain that they have the right to access tools that protect such rights. And then we go a bit further where we hold their hand and tell them you must start somewhere – that the only way keep those rights is to claim them. It’s not exactly hand holding, it’s just creating a system people can turn to. For example, at JCLA people receive legal counsel and legal aid. At other organizations they’re going to receive technical support to do advocacy planning. This is all part of what civil society is about – helping communities step up and claim their rights.

It’s the people themselves who set the bar on what is acceptable and how much violation of rights can be tolerated. The more educated we are, the more active we are, the fewer violations there will be. If we set up systems that encourage people to start demanding and practicing their rights, then the regime will respond. Once we achieve a reduction in violations then our work is to put guarantees in place to ensure that this can be sustained.

That’s why JCLA was really interested in bringing different people from the region together – to understand what other NGOs are doing and to try and see if there is something we could all benefit from, whether it’s exchange of experience, exchange of contacts, or talking about lessons learned. Getting all of these people together and creating that framework – that we are all legal empowerment partners in Jordan – opens lots of ways forward. It helps us understand that we are working toward a joint goal, that we are partners, that we complement each other. It means that everybody will be stronger.

You don’t just see a textbook that tells you how it should be done. You hear from somebody telling you about the challenges they face and how they’ve gone about addressing them. They give you the human side of the story.

The nice thing about meetings like this one here in Amman is that you don’t just see a textbook that tells you how it should be done. You hear from somebody telling you about the challenges they face and how they’ve gone about addressing them. They give you the human side of the story. People here have addressed challenges related to sustainability, improving legal education and ensuring protection of activists who are working on legal empowerment. I think participants are most interested in bringing new insights home and translating them into action for their own programs, customizing them to their own local scenes.

I can see that more people are proudly identifying themselves as legal empowerment organizations, which really could help. This community can help practitioners build self-evaluations and identify and map programs for future collaboration. The challenges are mainly to do with the fact that people are on such different levels and interested in such a vast array of issues. It is impossible to frame that all into one event, so we obviously need to work toward more customized education and to narrow the areas where we could help them find concrete tools to help them achieve their missions.

For now we’re mainly interested in creating a community and giving people a chance to find their own solutions and tools the feel comfortable with. This is the ground to build on.”

Hadeel Abdel Aziz