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Director of World Justice Project delivers Annual Lecture on Human Rights

Betsy Andersen motions to the presentation screen
May 18 2019

By Arman Kassam, Student Assistant.

Betsy Andersen, the Executive Director of the World Justice Project, outlined an urgent need to reclaim the rule of law at the Handa Center biannual lecture on Human Rights this past Thursday. Her call for reconsideration of the phrase "rule of law" began with a history of the term, which Andersen traced from the theory of John Adams to its reimplementation by Kofi Anan. She discussed the legal and ethical sanctity of the phrase as a standard to which all states should subscribe. But, paradoxically, because the "rule of law" is in rhetorical vogue the world over, it is incessantly used to cover up instances when the rule of law is actually breached. Authoritarian regimes claim the rhetoric of rule of law—where they supposedly uphold the equality and ethic of a fair legal system—but in fact eschew the rule of law for rule by law. Andersen explicated with snippets of media on the Philippines' Duterte, Brexit, and Alabama's new abortion law, among others.

"Just because a policy is pursued through law does not mean it upholds the rule of law," Andersen elaborated. "The content of this important norm erodes it in the process."

In approaching potential solutions to this pandemic, the World Justice Project aims to both reclaim the phrase and understand legal systems across the globe. With four key principles in mind—accountability, just laws, open government, and accessible and impartial dispute resolution—the WJP has steered and collated an index of 126 countries and jurisdictions, based on surveys from a total of 120,000+ households, that exposes how the rule of law is experienced. The index comes with rankings based on eight different criteria: constraints on government power, absence of corruption, open government, fundamental rights, order and security, regulatory enforcement, civil justice, and criminal justice. Andersen highlighted some of the key trends the WJP has identified in the past year, most notably a general deterioration of the rule of law across the board. 31 countries saw a deterioration of 1% or greater while 21 countries saw improvement by the same amount. This past year has also marked a considerable drop in fundamental rights and criminal justice, and states like Hungary and Poland have experienced these same changes with declining constraints on government power. For Andersen, the global picture is a clear, yet disturbing one: authoritarianism is rising.

The WJP's data supports claims of a "Global Justice Gap," where 1.5 billion people lack access to legal amelioration for everyday needs like landlord issues, labor conflicts, and domestic matters. The gap disproportionately affects the poor and has resulted in a considerable impact on health, housing, and employment opportunities. Furthermore, Andersen pointed out that there was an unexpected decrease in corruption across the world this past year despite a general rise in authoritarianism. For the WJP and the history of populism, this may be old news. She explained that it's possible that corruption (or at least the perception of corruption) would impose a significant barrier to authoritarian regimes due to withering popular support.

Andersen concluded her lecture with a return to her call for clarity and universality of the rule of law, listing three key action items - we must clarify the definition, educate about the rule of law, and engage the media on coverage of the phrase. The talk transitioned into a brief Q&A with Handa Center Faculty Fellow Beth Van Schaack, who connected the WJP's aims with the SDSN's Development Goal 16.3 to promote the rule of law at the national and international levels, and ensure equal access to justice for all.