Law as a tool to empower and achieve change

Noélie Coudurier, Sreetama Gupta Bhaya and Laura Gyte share a wealth of examples demonstrating how law can help drive positive change.

Campaigning outside the UK Houses of Parliament. Oxfam has been calling on the UK government to immediately suspend its arms exports to Saudi Arabia. With others, we are now mounting a legal challenge. Photo: Andy Hall.
Campaigning outside the UK Houses of Parliament. Oxfam GB has been calling on the UK government to immediately suspend its arms exports to Saudi Arabia. With others, we are now mounting a legal challenge. Photo: Andy Hall.

As campaigners, we can feel ambivalent about law. As a product of society, it’s often structured to protect the privileged. Even the most progressive constitutions in the world, forged in times of political transformation and hope, are not yet practically realised in people’s lives. 

But law can also be a useful tool to achieve change. We can use it to empower people; hold the powerful to account; defend progressive laws, and secure their implementation. Here we explore some examples of legal tactics we are currently using to tackle poverty and injustice.

Climate change litigation as a global movement

Oxfam France has joined with three other NGOs to take the French state to court for non-compliance with its international, European and French obligations; lack of climate ambition; and endangering the fundamental rights of French citizens. 

Over 2.1 million people have added their names in support; the largest sign-up in French history. Social media influencers have been key to securing this impact. The video clip accompanying the launch has had 14 million views on Facebook, and 1 million on YouTube (not to mention Twitter and Instagram). 

The case is part of a global movement. All over the world, citizens are taking legal action to ensure that their fundamental rights are upheld in the face of climate change: 

  • In the Netherlands, the courts have ordered the state to raise its targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 
  • In Colombia, 25 young people got Supreme Court recognition of the need to act against deforestation, and in favour of climate protection. 
  • In Pakistan, a farmer’s son obtained recognition of the right to life and of access to food in the face of climate change.

Court cases alone are not the answer, but as the stakes get higher, cases are galvanising and focusing public support. We know litigation is a rare, though powerful lever. Our next example looks at legal tools available where litigation is not accessible.

Legally empowering communities in India

India’s obsession with economic growth has led to widening social and regional inequality. This often plays out in how the government manages its rich base of natural resources. While local communities depend on land, forests and water for their livelihoods, interests of big corporations (eg mining, power) are often prioritized—with huge impacts on local communities.

Despite a raft of environmental legislation designed to reduce and mitigate negative impacts, the legal clauses for monitoring and reporting are vague and the responsibilities to act on complaints are fragmented. As a result, action is rarely taken. Many people are vulnerable to the everyday effects of pollution, restrictions on mobility, and loss of access to community resources, property and livelihoods.

Oxfam India has partnered with the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) to empower affected communities. We have established networks of grassroots paralegals to document violations and seek remedies.  Training has been rolled out in three states, creating tremendous interest and demand.

Comparing legal rights with reality is an innovative approach for legal empowerment.
In a political climate where direct confrontation can lead to human rights violation and repression, it gives communities dialogue with bureaucrats and administrators on an equal footing. This ‘groundtruthing’ element of comparing legal rights with reality is an innovative approach for legal empowerment that we are developing with CPR.

Securing and defending progressive laws 

Oxfam successfully campaigned with others to secure an international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).  This regulates the sale of arms, and stops them where there is a clear humanitarian risk. In April, Oxfam will be one of several human rights NGOs intervening in support of a legal challenge asking the court to order that the UK’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen are unlawful, to give effect to the ATT.

Those opposed to the changes we seek will also use legal strategies to counter them.
We must realise that those opposed to the changes we seek will also use legal strategies to counter them. 

In the UK, our campaigns work with allies has secured legislation that requires tax transparency laws to be introduced in the UK’s tax haven Overseas Territories. This is a critical step in stopping tax avoidance by multi-national corporations in developing countries; tax which could fund healthcare and education. 

Having secured the law, we turn our attention to how the legislation is interpreted and implemented. As we push for the strongest possible implementation, some of the countries that act as tax havens are threatening to bring litigation to stop it taking effect. 

Where next?

Oxfam is building an international network of staff engaged in legal work, and we continue to develop our thinking and practice with allies. We know that legal tools can’t achieve lasting, systemic change on their own—we need people and politics for that. But, as part of a wider social movement for change, legal tools can achieve significant influencing impact.

As a global confederation we look to innovate, and share learning on fundamental questions such as: what does it look like to run strategic litigation on legal empowerment principles? What tools work best in different political circumstances? How can legal tools be led by, and support and strengthen, social movements?

And the most fundamental question of all: what more can we do to shift law from a structure that maintains the status quo, to a tool in the hands of communities to drive equality, and establish a just and sustainable world free from poverty?

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