Why Development Needs the Rule of Law

In Mexico since 2006, tens of thousands have been killed, and many more disappeared, as a war between narcotics gangs and government security forces has engulfed civilians, though few perpetrators have been brought to justice. In Equatorial Guinea, a country with per capita GDP greater than Italy or South Korea, 60 percent of the population survives on less than $1 a day, as oil revenues are siphoned off by widespread corruption. Throughout Central and Eastern Europe, in defiance of repeated court judgments, Roma children are condemned to second-class education because of the color of their skin.

A common problem underlies each of these tragedies: the failure of the rule of law.

In recent years, the concept of the “rule of law” has been gaining increased attention in academic and political circles.  Now, a major opportunity to capitalize on the recent fascination with the rule of law is on the horizon: the post-2015 generation of Millennium Development Goals.

In September 2000, world leaders came together to proclaim, in the Millennium Declaration, that “the central challenge we face today is to ensure that globalization becomes a positive force for all the world’s people” (para. 5). The Declaration pledged the UN General Assembly’s commitment to a set of ambitious, time-bound, measurable goals to promote development and reduce poverty. But it also identified a number of other “key objectives,” including to further peace and security, protect the environment, and “promote democracy and strengthen the rule of law, as well as respect for all internationally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

In 2001, when the Declaration was operationalized into a set of Millennium Development Goals, the rule of law, human rights, democracy, and the environment were left out. Nonetheless, the MDGs, as they have become known, have had a substantial impact in their respective fields. As of 2010, five years before their deadline, the overarching goal of halving extreme poverty had been met. Primary education enrollment rates have increased measurably in south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. MDG-related health gains in respect of malaria and HIV/AIDS have led to big reductions in child mortality in several countries.

At the same, time the absence of the rule of law has been telling. No low-income country experiencing armed conflict has achieved a single MDG. To the contrary, conflict-affected states—those, by definition, where the rule of law is lacking—count for disproportionately high percentages of the developing world’s poor, uneducated, and infant deaths. In advanced economies too, those portions of the population denied access to justice suffer from higher levels of discrimination in education and other public services.

The debate over the next generation of MDGs is underway. A high-level UN panel, co-chaired by British Prime Minister David Cameron, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, will issue its recommendations by June, and the Secretary General will make his report to the UN General Assembly this September. Then it will be up to governments to decide.

There are many good reasons to include the rule of law—whether under its own name or that of a sister moniker such as “access to justice”—in the next generation of MDGs. These include its contributions to sustainable development, poverty reduction, and citizen security and empowerment. 

And there are many ways to do so. It could be a goal in its own right, reflecting the fact that, as world leaders reaffirmed just last September, the rule of law is of “fundamental importance for political dialogue and cooperation among all States and for the further development of the three main pillars upon which the United Nations is built: international peace and security, human rights, and development.”

The rule of law also could be integrated into concrete and measurable targets, such as doubling over the next decade the number of people who enjoy access to legal advice at low or no cost, or halving the number of people who have no legal identity. In addition, rule of law-related indicators—measuring, for example, whether national legislation authorizes provision of medication necessary to treat certain health conditions or education of all children of a certain age; whether legal frameworks are in place to resolve disputes over access to medicine or education; and whether provisions guaranteeing access to health care or schooling are enforced equally without discrimination—could be used to facilitate progress toward other goals, whether with respect to education, health care, or poverty reduction.

But perhaps the most important reason to include the rule of law in the post-2015 development framework is that it’s the right thing to do. A culture of respect for the rule of law remains both an essential foundation for human well-being and a distant goal in many places. Since the first MDGs were promulgated a dozen years ago, rule of law emergencies have continued to arise—from the terrorist violence of 9/11 to the overreaction of rendition and torture, from civil war in Syria to the collapse of social order in parts of Iraq, Pakistan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Failure to incorporate the rule of law into the post-2015 MDGs would send an unacceptable message: that states cannot muster the political capital needed to change course. As the idea of the rule of law gains currency around the world, political leaders will have to do better.

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