Experts call for rule of law programming to be US priority

By Evelyn Rupert

May 25, 2018

Supporting the rule of law in other countries should be a priority of U.S. assistance and foreign policy, but a comprehensive strategy needs to be defined to guide development programming, experts said at a Wilson Center event.

Called “Rule of Law, a Linchpin of U.S. Foreign Policy,” the May 22 event featured a keynote address and Q&A with U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Cardin remarked that the United States must be an international leader in advancing rule of law around the world.

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Wilson Center Director, President and CEO Jane Harman and Sen. Ben Cardin. Photos by Evelyn Rupert.

“What makes America a unique nation in the history of mankind are the values that we bring to the table: the respect for rule of law, that everyone’s accountable, that we believe in diversity, we believe in democratic institutions, we believe in fighting corruption,” Cardin remarked. “That’s what we stand for.”

Creative Senior Rule of Law Advisor Jenny Murphy, in a panel discussion following Cardin’s remarks, said the rule of law is one of the “principal building blocks” of democratic governance and should be a focus of U.S. government dialogue, policymakers and international donors.

“Democracy requires the rule of law,” she said. “The rule of law is important to democratic governance because it establishes the foundation for certain conditions, such as the expression of collective will, a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, equal rights and social order. From these conditions, democratic governance can thrive.”

Need for a larger strategy

The Wilson Center event centered on the release of a new report, “Frontier Justice: A New Approach for U.S. Rule of Law Assistance,” which captured the international research and recommendations of Robert M. Perito, former Director of the Center of Innovation for Security Sector governance at the U.S. Institute of Peace, and Donald J. Planty, former U.S. ambassador to Guatemala.

Speaking on the panel, Perito and Planty called for a more defined, comprehensive U.S. strategy toward advancing the rule of law that can navigate the in-country context of the political landscape and political will, justice sector institutions and popular support.

“We need a new approach to U.S. rule of law,” Perito said. “Rule of law is the super-structure of democracy, and democracy is under attack worldwide.”

Creative’s Murphy stressed that such a strategy requires coordination among donors and implementers and creative, agile and focused programming.

“In the future, rule of law development work will not be what we’ve traditionally seen as standalone programs or stovepipe projects,” Murphy said. “Instead, these programs will have targeted lenses, such as fighting impunity and anti-corruption, like the work that we’ve been seeing with the International Commission against Impunity and the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Guatemala and Honduras, and improving juvenile justice in order to prevent recidivism.”

Working within ever-changing contexts

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Creative Senior Rule of Law Advisor, Jenny Murphy

The panelists agreed that rule of law development requires programs that can quickly adapt to sudden changes in the political landscape, such as the cycle of elected officials. Programming should be developed with a local focus, including considering traditional or indigenous justice systems, and cognizant of local challenges, they said.

Panelist William Pomeranz, a Russia expert and Deputy Director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center, said the legacy of Russian and Soviet Union rule over the Ukraine has left it with few national institutions to drive rule of law.

Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director and South Asia Senior Associate for the Wilson Center’s Asia Program, pointed out that the profitable drug trade in Afghanistan detracts from public will to see rule of law strengthened.

Murphy, who has extensive experience in Latin America, noted that in that region, rising levels of violence and crime due to gangs and other groups have hindered the work of justice sector institutions.

She said that while progress has been made over the past decades, the recent “democratic backsliding” in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Bolivia is alarming.

“There’s no silver bullet for rule of law development work,” Murphy said, noting that it can take decades for reform to be fully institutionalized. “Citizen security measures will need to better linked or incorporated into rule of law programs, since crime prevention is one half of the coin before an individual enters into the criminal justice system as an accused.”

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