UNDP: The rule of law is a vital condition to peace and development
By Jordan Ryan and Olav Kjorven
In December 2010, disappointed by a system that was stacked against him, a young Tunisian street vendor publically set himself on fire. His tragic act of protest awakened popular demand for change, and set off a chain of events that are still unfolding today in the Arab region and beyond.
The principle of the rule of law— that no one is above the law and everyone has equal protection from laws that are fair, non-discriminatory and respect human rights— is still absent for many. Like that young street vendor, millions of people remain unable to grasp opportunities for a better life because of routine demands for bribes and regulations that limit their ability to earn a livelihood. In the face of such systemic injustice, it is not surprising that people lose faith in state authority; resort to an informal economy; or escape injustice by migrating.
The rule of law is the foundation that enables societies to progress. Essential elements of a just society, including the legitimacy of public institutions and helping the most vulnerable to secure access to justice, have their roots in the rule of law. The many people who took to the streets in protest across the Arab region, reminded us that if the legal system is unjust, then enforcement can become a tool of repression rather than a means to prevent conflict.
Without strong, justly enforced laws, that are accessible to all, poor people have difficulty to secure their property rights, find stable employment, benefit from the most basic social services, or even send their children safely to school. For the 1.5 billion people around the world who live in a place affected by armed conflict, violence or high levels of crime, it is extremely difficult to prevent conflict or recover from crisis without efforts to strengthen the rule of law.
This week world leaders gather for the United Nations General Assembly in New York to address this issue. Helen Clark, the head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) will urge them to prioritise the rule of law. More political commitment is needed to help police perform their functions free of corruption, discrimination, brutality and excessive force; courts need more help to provide impartial access to justice; the poor and marginalised are crying out for access to justice and land rights; and women in dozens of countries desperately need laws that protect them from being attacked, raped and intimidated.
Although more commitment is needed, our organisation is finding that progress is possible and we are pleased to say that much has already been done. For example, in 2011 in Tunisia where the Arab uprising began, UNDP helped the new government to organise the first free election since independence in 1956; in Colombia, we helped 75,000 victims of violence to receive reparations; in El Salvador, UNDP helped to improve security through a programme that has significantly reduced the number of murders in some municipalities. Mozambique has seen thousands of people receive free legal aid in remote rural districts, and over 450,000 poor and disadvantaged people have benefited from access to justice programmes in Indonesia with UNDP support. These are positive steps.
There is much we can do together to make the law work for everyone and we welcome the renewed international focus that this meeting in New York will bring to the importance of the rule of law for peace, security and development. Respect for the rule of law is in the interest of all people and countries, developing and developed alike. The time is now to commit to action.
Jordan Ryan is Assistant Administrator, UNDP, and Director, Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery
Olav Kjørven is Assistant Administrator, UNDP, and Director, Bureau for Development Policy