EF’s “Equal Before the Law (EBL): Access to Justice in Central Asia,” a flagship program of the Wider Europe Initiative of the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, significantly improved access to justice for vulnerable people in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The €4.8 million program ran from July 2011 to March 2014. It supported the Finnish Constitution’s assertion that “everyone is equal before the law” by bringing national laws closer to international norms while improving people’s experience with their national and local justice systems.

EBL was designed to make legal representation more readily available for vulnerable people, especially rural women, children considered at risk, and the disabled. The program focused on two objectives:

  • Better aligning national law and practices with international law and best practices; and
  • Increasing the ability of citizens to use national law to defend their rights and interests.

EBL was successful on both fronts: at the local level, vulnerable populations are better able to legally defend their rights, and national governments have begun to seriously address access to justice. Through training and consultations, EBL improved the practical knowledge and skills of hundreds of government and civil society representatives charged with helping vulnerable people. Moreover, it made significant improvements to legal education for the next generation of lawyers. While EBL made more modest progress on policy changes, it produced a set of implementable recommendations directly drawn from the EBL team’s work with vulnerable groups.

By promoting international legal conventions and best practices to both lawyers and government officials, EBL provided an objective framework for Central Asian governments to improve equality before the law. National legislation is increasingly aligned with international commitments, as when Tajikistan recently passed a domestic violence law, but much work remains to be done before the promise of such legal reforms is actually felt by the vulnerable in society.

The program worked from both the top-down and bottom-up to decrease the gap between international ideals and vulnerable people’s everyday experience. Data gathered from EBL’s research and legal consultations show where and how gaps appear in human rights protection. The program’s approach emphasized coordination between national governments and local civil society, as well as between international donors and organizations. In each country, councils made up of these stakeholders met regularly to provide recommendations to the program.

EBL also took advantage of Finland’s rule of law expertise. Dr. Pekka Hallberg, former President of the Supreme Administrative Court, professors from the University of Helsinki and Åbo Akademi, NGOs like the Abilis Foundation, and government agencies such as the Chancellor of Justice and Ombudsman played major implementation and advisory roles. As a result, two books by senior Finnish judges about legal norms and practices were translated and published in Central Asia.

In each country hub NGOs provided training and consultation to a broad network of grassroots NGOs, community leaders, and officials, as well as legal aid to clients referred by network members. More than 1,900 government and local NGO representatives were trained through EBL over the course of three years. EBL also conducted over 43,000 legal consultations, 80% of which were provided to women. Each lawyer in the program conducted an average of 1,200 consultations, and the program helped defend the rights of vulnerable people on a total of 548 court cases.

As the result of EBL, the region is now more closely aligned with international legal standards and vulnerable people are better able to defend themselves when their rights are infringed upon. EBL’s combination of top-down and bottom-up approaches laid the groundwork for rights protection — a legacy that national governments can pick up and carry forward. With better-trained lawyers and more legal awareness among government officials, NGO activists and rural populations, the governments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are now better equipped to guarantee the rights of their citizens.