UN Holds First High Level Meeting on Rule of Law, Stresses Role of Civil Society

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Date: 
October 3, 2012

World leaders emphasized the “essential link” between respect for the rule of law and improving the lives of people living in conflict and post-conflict societies at a UN meeting on Sept. 24, 2012. Attended by leaders of 80 nations and several prominent non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the first ever UN high-level meeting on the rule of law featured speakers praising the universality of international humanitarian law and the importance of ensuring civil society has the “legislative and political space to thrive.”

“The advancement of the rule of law at the national and international levels is essential for sustained and inclusive economic growth, sustainable development, the eradication of poverty and hunger and the full realization of all human rights and fundamental freedoms,” a declaration adopted by the UN General Assembly at the meeting said.

In his opening comments, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stressed that responsibility for strengthening the rule of law lies with each UN member country, and that “civil society plays a crucial role in holding leaders to account.” He called on civil society organizations around the world to “keep pushing for action,” and to galvanize these efforts, Ban provided a report, Delivering Justice: Program of Action to Strengthen the Rule of Law at the National and International Levels.  As the title suggests, the report identifies a number of “key commitments to be made by Member States and the United Nations.” The commitments are grouped in four categories:

  1. the adoption of a program of action;
     
  2. the broadening of the rule of law debate, including the establishment of a forum open to civil society;
     
  3. the launching of a process to set common goals for the rule of law, with corresponding benchmarks and indicators to measure the progress achieved;
     
  4. the creation of a mechanism of voluntary pledges on the rule of law to be made by member states

The plan calls on all UN member countries to “commit themselves to granting all individuals their full right to association and assembly, and to supporting civil society organizations and giving them the necessary legislative and political space to thrive.” The plan also suggests the creation of a consultative forum on the rule of law, open to all member states, NGOs, academic institutions, and the private sector, which would meet periodically to discuss specific thematic issues and to report to the General Assembly.

Speaking at the same meeting, Louise Arbour, the president and CEO of the International Crisis Group (ICG), talked about the ambiguity and popularity of the term, rule of law, among policymakers and experts who use it under vastly different priorities and interests.  Lacking a proper definition, he said, “The robust enforcement of laws that violate fundamental human rights can entrench authoritarians and, worse still, give them the additional veneer of respectability associated with respect for the Rule of Law.” 

In a related New York Times op-ed from September 2012, Arbour added:

“The real rule of law is substantive and encompasses many human-rights requirements. It reflects the idea of equality in a substantive way: not just that no one is above the law, but that everyone is equal before and under the law, and is entitled to its equal protection and equal benefit.”

Ban also called on countries to use their legal frameworks in a fair and consistent manner. “I call on all States to commit to the equal application of the law at both the national and international levels. There should be no selectivity in applying resolutions, decisions and laws. We cannot allow political self-interest to undermine justice,” Ban said.

The link between the rule of law and human rights can be traced back to the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “It is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.”