Why the rule of law matters

The idea that nations should be governed by laws is neither revolutionary nor radical. It’s the best system democracy knows to ensure basic fairness and justice. The rule of law is what protects many of us from mob rule or the arbitrary, unjust and often self-serving exercise of power by a few. Its principle is a simple one: no one is above the law; it applies equally to all – the governed as well as those who govern. 

Standing up for the rule of law has always mattered a great deal to me, as it should matter to all of us. Whenever governments undermine or disrespect the law, institutions falter, democracy is threatened, and people suffer.

Take the Philippines, for instance, where President Rodrigo Duterte came to power in 2016 with a campaign promise to reignite the failed war on drugs and show no mercy for those involved in the drug trade. Less than 18 months after Duterte’s inauguration, Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 12,000 mostly poor, urban people have been murdered by police and vigilante groups in random acts of violence. At the same time, critics of the President’s policies have been intimidated, threatened and in a number of cases detained without charges or trial. “You have to kill to make your city peaceful,” the President reportedly said in a speech last week. I am shocked that this is considered an acceptable level of public discourse. 

The Philippines are just one example of the rule of law in a free fall featured in the 2018 Rule of Law Index, released this week by the World Justice Project. The Index provides a rule of law score for 113 countries, based on data gathered from more than 100,000 households and over 3,000 experts. The results are sobering, so much so that some observers speak of “a crisis for human rights”. Compared to 2016, more than 70 of the countries surveyed have seen their fundamental human rights – for instance, non-discrimination, freedom of speech or privacy rights – decline, with the Philippines dropping 18 positions. Scandinavian nations Denmark, Norway and Finland come out on top of the index, while Afghanistan, Cambodia and increasingly totalitarian Venezuela take the bottom three ranks.

As authoritarianism, human rights violations, corruption and blatant disregard for international agreements appear to be on the rise around the globe, we all must make every effort to strengthen democratic institutions, speak truth to abuses of power and insist on the primacy of the rule of law. In the words of my friend Archbishop Tutu, who is one of the co-chairs of the World Justice Project: “Strengthening the rule of law is an essential ingredient to enhance justice, peace and economic and social progress.” 


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