Insights from Hamid Khan, Deputy Director of the Rule of Law Collaborative at the University of South Carolina
When conflict or crisis disrupts the delivery of justice services, deterioration of the rule of law can contribute to violence and feed extremism.
In its simplest form, the rule of law means that laws apply to everyone, are not secret or arbitrary, are fairly enforced and that the judicial system is fair and independent.
A strong justice sector, with the ability to administer justice and resolve grievances, can serve as a support for communities in the midst of or transitioning out of crisis. But experts in the field maintain that when the rule of law is unstable, mistrust and frustration with government institutions can contribute to violent extremism.
To explore the relationship between rule of law and violent extremism, I sat down with Hamid Khan, Deputy Director of the Rule of Law Collaborative at the University of South Carolina, during the World Justice Forum V in The Hague, Netherlands.
Khan is also a non-resident fellow of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Saudi Arabia, and he has served as an expert consultant on rule of law issues with a wide variety of organizations, both international and domestic.
The following are excerpts from the first in a series of interviews I’m conducting with fellow rule of law experts and practitioners.
Murphy: How do conflict and crisis relate to the rule of law?
Khan: There is perhaps no bigger challenge that we have faced in the last 25 years than the episodes of conflict. Conflict can usually be both a bellwether for the degradation of the rule of law – in other words the end result – but it can also then be a cause for opportunity to rebuild legal and justice sector infrastructure.
So it has both causes and effects, but what we’re seeing is in a variety of different contexts, in a variety of different places, that conflict itself is an increasingly important bellwether that has evolved over time, and one that we are seeing with the instability around the world.
Murphy: How do the rule of law and efforts to counter violent extremism overlap?
Khan: There’s been a lot of focus on extremism looking at the extremist end and looking at the ideology, but we haven’t spent a considerable amount of attention looking at the causes and effects rather than the symptoms.
Individuals who move toward an extremist ideology – one in which they go from extreme ideas to then extreme conduct – usually are grieved by a sense of injustice either by the world around them, or by the institutions of government which they have interacted with.
In fact, there is significant data to show from reputable sources that the greatest indicator of whether or not an individual commits an extremist act is whether or not they’ve actually witnessed violence perpetuated by state institutional actors.
So the correlation between what justice sector actors do at a state level and that perception can have a direct effect on how local individuals perceive both their justice system and more importantly, their willingness to commit violence to address their grievances.
And this isn’t symptomatic of just one region. There’s actually growing evidence in a multitude of contexts irrespective of culture or religion that shows that the nexus between justice sector activities that are perpetuating violence can then merit an extreme counter response.
Murphy: How do you develop and design rule of law programs in conflict or extremist environments?
Khan: It’s the same recipe for rule of law activities writ large, which is first and foremost to understand context, to understand history. In the rule of law parlance we call this assessments, and we need to make sure that our assessments are thorough, because they need to be wide-ranging, and they need to involve stakeholders. That takes time, and it takes research and it goes beyond textbooks. It goes into cultural understandings. It goes to actors beyond the capital and it looks beyond to those individuals who are say faith-based leaders, civic society leaders, or educational institutions.
That kind of understanding, while it may be lengthy at the front end, will actually help to germinate the tailored solutions that are often required for effective rule of law-based programming that would take place afterward.
Murphy: In these complex situations, how do you respond when government and civil society groups lack the ability to establish rule of law?
Khan: Well depending on the conflict, we may see an absence of government or civil society groups, or both. So we have to be willing as practitioners, especially those going into conflict areas, to widen our scope and the aperture of who the important actors are, because oftentimes in one society the government may be present but not present in the very place where rule of law activities are at their weakest.
We may have to engage with unsavory individuals, or we may have to go to unlikely individuals who we may not at first blush think of as the source of authority.
In Afghanistan one of the challenges – and it was replicated in Iraq and it’s certainly something we’re seeing in Syria as well – is that oftentimes the most important legal enforcers are not the government and they’re not the rebel groups. But they may be existing warlords, tribal chiefs, or religious leaders who hold sway over a local population.
And the only way to fully understand who these authorities are is to go beyond the books and actually speak to individuals and to cross-pollinate the stories and the accounts of one group of individuals with another disparate set of individuals to get a full picture of what’s going on in that situation.
Murphy: What do you predict will be the biggest challenge to rule of law development around the globe in the next three to five years, and how can we respond?
Khan: It seems to me that a big challenge is where we stand at that fulcrum of demand and supply for rule of law programming, and the willingness of governments and donors to continue funding rule of law programs. At the end of the day, history has taught that once you ignore the rule of law, the cost can be much greater if we’re forced to fix the problem much later on.
Perhaps the most important thing is to ensure that our solutions remain creative, that we make sure that ideas are innovative, that we don’t simply go to textbook solutions, but that we really look to the resources of experienced practitioners, experienced individuals, context-specific areas in order to come up with new and novel solutions that don’t necessarily have to cost an extraordinary amount of money, but really do rest on those who understand the situation the best.