Democracy and Governance: Rule of Law

 This is The Rule of Law: Democracy and Governance

In my book, Global: An Extraordinary Guide for Ordinary Heroes, I cover some of the very pressing global issues that need our focus.  Here on my blog, I’ll highlight some of them.  Starting with one that is near and dear to my heart as a democracy and governance expert — one of the cornerstones of democracy and governance: rule of law.

Rule of law

I lived in Tajikistan for two years, while working at the US Embassy. There, traffic police would stand by the side of the road and randomly wave drivers down even though they weren’t breaking any rules. If you got waved down (this never happened to me because of my diplomatic plates), you were supposed to pull over, give the officer a small bribe (just a dollar or two, but this is a lot in a country where the average monthly salary is about $123), and be on your merry way. Meanwhile, all around the officers, drivers were speeding, passing on the left (putting them in the lane facing oncoming traffic!) and making turns from the far lane. The drivers were recklessly aggressive and breaking every traffic law in Tajikistan, but they didn’t get pulled over because there is very weak rule of law there.

Rule of law means that everyone in a country follows the law, no matter who they are. This includes everyday citizens, police officers, politicians, civil servants, and all the way up the chain to the prime minister or president; no one is above the law. The law is the same for rich people as it is for poor people. (Granted, if you’re rich, you can hire better lawyer, but you cannot outright buy your freedom.)

A real-life example of rule of law is the impeachment and arrest of Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s former president, who was sentenced to 24 years in prison on bribery and other charges.

We have amazing rule of law in the US (even though we are still prone to our imperfections!). It covers a wide range of aspects of our society from the daily laws we follow without even thinking about them, to a well-functioning judicial system, to a well-trained and equipped police force, to relatively low violence throughout the country. Rule of law allows citizens to understand what is expected of them and, in turn, know what to expect from their government. And, when an organization or individual steps outside the rule of law in the US, the public outcry is huge.

A simple, practical example of rule of law in the US is that drivers stop at red lights, and go at green lights. If someone runs a red light and a police officer (or camera) sees it, the driver will get a ticket, and have to pay a fine for running the red light. If they don’t think they were breaking the law, they can appear in court to contest their ticket. And, if they don’t pay their fine, they will get additional fines and eventually have to serve jail time. Breaking the law has clear and consistent consequences.

This might all seem a bit obvious, but in practice there are so many steps that have to be taken in order for someone (in this example the driver who ran a red light) to be held responsible for breaking the law. There have to be functioning traffic signals in the first place. There have to be established traffic laws and the driver has to understand these laws. There have to be enough police officers on the police force to make it likely that a police officer will be patrolling and see the driver break the law and/or there has to be good enough infrastructure that there are traffic cameras at intersections. The police officer who stops the driver has to be trained well enough to know the traffic laws and well paid enough to give the driver a ticket instead of asking for a bribe and letting the driver go without a ticket. There also has to be a culture on the police force that discourages corruption even if the police receive sufficient pay. (When a culture of corruption exists, the higher-ups at the police force will demand bribes from their staff, which will put pressure on the police officers to demand bribes from citizens in order to pay the bribes they “owe” to their bosses).

In order to create an incentive for our hypothetical bad driver to pay the fine, there has to be well-known and well-understood repercussions for not paying it, and the driver needs to believe that they will face them (i.e. receiving jail time for failure to pay). There also has to be a process in place for collecting fines that is easy enough that the driver will do it (i.e. just mailing it in rather than having to go to the police station in person to pay the fine).

In order to contest a ticket (if you felt that you were not breaking the law), you have to know your rights as a citizen. We receive a lot of civic education in the US, which equips us with a pretty good grip on our rights and responsibilities as citizens. This information can be shared formally (in school) or more informally (through the media, religious organizations, the government and other members of the community). Civic education is an important part of rule of law because it creates a culture of lawfulness, in which citizens and government have entered into a pact where they will both follow the laws and society will function within these confines. Our government operates in line with a clear set of rules and regulations, and these are clearly communicated to citizens. There are so many resources (most are now on the internet) in the US for learning about our laws, legal codes, regulations, etc. Really, you have no excuse for being in the dark about your civic duties.

But let’s go back to our example for a moment. In order to contest the ticket, the driver not only needs to know their rights, but there also has to be a process in place for contesting tickets. This means there has to be a functioning judicial system, including a courthouse, a judge, lawyers, police officers, stenographers, guards, and so on. Not to mention that the people working in the judicial system should be well-trained (i.e. not be able to buy their diplomas online) and not corrupt. A functioning judicial system is also necessary if the driver doesn’t pay their fine and has to be taken to jail.

Bottom line: even though stopping at a red light seems like a pretty common sense thing to most drivers, it’s also a great example of how complex rule of law is and how important it is to the smooth functioning of a country. Pretty awesome isn’t it?

We are lucky to have such good rule of law in the US. There is still crime and murder in the US, but a well-functioning judicial system makes it less enticing to commit a crime. In Guatemala, for example, there is 98 percent impunity for murder, which means that only 2 percent of the people who commit murders go to jail. Unsurprisingly, Guatemala has one of the highest murder rates in the world.

Speaking of which: a high impunity rate is one reason why extrajudicial killings are synonymous with “justice” in some developing countries. Extrajudicial killing is when someone is murdered for a crime that they committed (or are assumed to have committed), or in retaliation against a crime that someone else committed. A well-functioning judicial system protects innocent people too. In some developing countries, women are raped as a form of justice for a crime their brothers committed, or sons are murdered for a crime their fathers committed. In other words: never take rule of law for granted. It could save your bacon one day.

My friend David Rubino talks about his own work on rule of law with the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA-ROLI). He’s currently its Country Director for Tajikistan, but his first encounter with the organization was when he went to volunteer for ABA-ROLI in Azerbaijan. He recalls: “When I arrived in Azerbaijan, the Women’s Bar Association (WBA) consisted of eight female lawyers with no real plan for their organization. They were clear on their goals, but not how to get there. Part of the problem was a cultural one: there were two competing “camps” in the WBA, the older generation and the younger generation. Due to their culture’s unique hierarchical dynamics, these groups rarely saw eye-to-eye. I started by identifying the common ground, racking up some quick wins, and in doing so building the trust we needed to tackle more divisive issues. And sure enough, once we did, we started growing. Soon there were twenty members. Then fifty. Then one hundred.

I trained them in grant writing, budgeting and the art of networking. Their ranks continued to grow. When the numbers hit three hundred, it was time for me to call in some backup. Help arrived in the form of a seventy-three year-old attorney named Barbara from the US. Barbara’s progressive mindset won over the younger members, while her age and seniority earned her respect from the old guard.

“In addition to being a professional network, the WBA wanted to act as the legal guardians of women’s rights in Azerbaijan. They secured grant funding to take on issues such as such as domestic violence, early marriage, human trafficking and workplace discrimination. I loved meeting the women the WBA had helped, and hearing their stories. I met a number of domestic violence victims served by the organization, including a young woman who the WBA helped to extract from a forced marriage. By then, the WBA was a 400-strong force for justice in the country. And, by helping to empower them, I felt as if their victories were mine.

“The program grew so successful that received a visit from then-Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and US Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues, Melanne Verveer, during their scheduled trip to Azerbaijan. During the meeting, I sat proudly as the WBA members highlighted their successes and detailed the many challenges they had overcome. It was an honor that they fully deserved, and a moment that I will not soon forget.

If you would like to learn more you should purchase my book, Global from Amazon.


3 thoughts on “Democracy and Governance: Rule of Law

  1. I appreciate your clear cut explanations of Rule of Law. I especially liked the story you shared about your friend, David Rubino. Good on him!! For helping the women lawyers in Azerbaijan coordinate and organize. And he was ‘only’ a volunteer. His work will be an uplifting expression of good for many generations to come.

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