What is the Rule of Law?

Rule of law denotes a concrete system of self-government grounded in a stable and accessible legal process. It features a system based on clear, objective and publicly disclosed laws; and a diverse, competent and independent legal profession. Effectively the ideal ensures that the government exercises its authority in accordance with a legal framework that assures individual liberty and national development.

Elements of Rule of Law

The World Justice Project has developed a working definition of rule of law based on four universal principles:

  1. Government officials and agents must be accountable under the law;
  2. Laws are clear, publicised, stable and fair, and protect fundamental rights, including the security of persons and property;
  3. The process by which laws are enacted, administered and enforced is accessible, fair and efficient;
  4. Access to justice is provided by competent, independent, and ethical adjudicators, attorneys, or representatives and judicial officers who are sufficient in number, have adequate resources, and reflect the makeup of the communities they serve.

A breakdown in the rule of law, as often seen in developing countries, is usually characterised by an underdeveloped and ill-equipped police force, a fragmented and ineffective legal system, lack of capacity and trust in the government and a deficient prison service. Development is impeded as economic growth becomes difficult to sustain. Property rights cannot be enforced and there is little incentive for foreign investment, as companies are generally hesitant to do business in insecure environments. Human security is also at risk where violent crime is not prevented, prosecuted or corrected. Ultimately individuals are consigned to live in societies without access to justice, jobs, health or education. Establishing and maintaining the rule of law is a fundamental imperative in promoting social and economic development. It is core to the foundation of a democratic society—the means by which citizens protect their liberty in a society of equals.

Currently, in its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the United Nations (UN) champions the rule of law as a vehicle in bringing about global justice and security. The MDGs are eight goals that the UN hopes to achieve by 2015 in an effort to respond to the world’s greatest development challenges. The MDGs call on nations to make laws in areas such as gender equality, commerce and the environment, and also call on nations to encourage their communities to abide by those rules through changes in custom. The UN explicitly acknowledges that achievement of the MDGs rests heavily on the development of rule of law, among other factors. In fact rule of law has been recognised not only as a goal itself, but as a means of achieving all eight.

All truly democratic nations aspire to respect the rule of law. Even in countries where basic freedoms are habitually ignored, there is room for hope. Increasingly, across nations formerly dictated by strife and discord, justice under the law is possible. However justice does not come easy; it is something to be worked into the political and social conscience through prolonged engagement. Institutions must be created or reformed, and political will nurtured, to guarantee progress toward fairness and parity and to protect human freedoms and fundamental rights.