Tag Archives: judiciary

Immeasurably important? The development discourse eyes the rule of law

by Rhodri C. Williams

Its been a busy 18 months in my new rule of law gig, and an eye-opening time to boot. While the range of issues falling under the rule of law umbrella is impressive in principle, I have found myself inevitably stove-piped in practice, with my housing, land and property (HLP) interests finding expression mainly in sporadic consultancies, and justice sector reform issues suddenly front and center in my professional life. Not that I am complaining, mind you.

Judicial reform is just another lens on the whole muddle of good intentions and mixed results I was approaching earlier mainly from a humanitarian perspective, and a change of perspective can be refreshing. I also expect that as I proceed down the rule of law road, I will have opportunities to unpack more and more of my HLP baggage along the way. But for now, it is very interesting to have at least a back row seat on the evolving definition of rule of law and how it relates to broader development assistance efforts.

Recently, a colleague (who I will hat-tip if she likes this post) sent me links to a pair of pieces that helped to crystallize some of the recent debates in this area in my own mind. The first was to a recent Washington Post op-ed by Gary A. Haugen of the International Justice Mission. Haugen describes the explosion of private security companies in the developing world and the extent to which this has resulted in a monopoly on protection from violence for the rich:

As elites abandon the public security system, their impoverished neighbors, especially women and girls, are left relying on underpaid, under-trained, undisciplined and frequently corrupt police forces for protection and all-but-paralyzed courts for justice. ….

When a justice system descends into utter dysfunction, those who exploit and abuse vulnerable people may do so without fear of apprehension or prosecution. As a result, violence is an everyday threat, as much a part of what it means to be poor as being hungry, sick, homeless or jobless.

Interestingly, this piece also exposes the great home truth about the ‘civil and political’ rights traditionally protected by judiciaries. Exclusive proponents of such rights (in countries ranging from the US to Sweden) have often lauded them for being ‘negative’ (in the sense that they involve government duties to refrain from taking actions), and therefore ostensibly cost-free to taxpayers.

This in contrast to social and economic rights, which are ‘positive’, entailing affirmative government actions (and expenditures), and therefore often decried as an unwarranted intrusion in the inherent right of governments to roll the pork barrels toward whichever constituency they choose. In the present case, the lurch toward private security has at least laid bare the extent to which courts actually represent a highly expensive ‘positive’ guarantee necessary for the equitable protection of any kind of rights.

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Chilean judiciary apologizes

In what the BBC has called an ‘unprecedented’ move, the Chilean National Association of Magistrates of the Judiciary has apologized for failing to protect the rights of those persecuted by the Pinochet regime in the 1970s and 80s. Coming just a week shy of the 40th anniversary of the September 11, 1973 coup that brought Pinochet to power, the judicial apology appears to come as part of a broader moment of reflection.

Although the executive branch and security forces clearly had the most to answer for at the time, it seems the judiciary played an entirely passive role:

The magistrates’ association acknowledged that the Chilean judiciary could and should have done much more to safeguard the rights of those persecuted by the dictatorship. It said the judges had ignored the plight of victims who had demanded their intervention.

Chilean courts rejected about 5,000 cases seeking help on locating missing loved ones abducted or killed by the authorities. Critics say their usual response was they had no information about their fate.

Such a judicial apology raises an interesting set of issues. Apologies are often seen as sensitive because even as symbolic acts, they can have material consequences. There is a fine line between taking moral responsibility for atrocities and taking legal responsibility for them and compensation claims are usually quick to follow.

For instance, the recent admission by the Farc in Colombia that it shared responsibility for the suffering that has resulted from its prolonged insurgency is seen as a prelude to wrangling over its liability to compensate victims in the ongoing peace negotiations with the Government.

However, apologies are usually issued by the executive or perhaps the legislative branch, with the consequences likely to be handled through the courts or administrative reparations programs. When a Court admits liability for violations in the form of systematic failure to provide remedies, what are the consequences of that? Its hard to imagine that the relatives of the disappeared turned away twenty years ago would be permitted to go back to those courts now in order to sue them.

It is also interesting to query whether this could lead to a trend. I suspect TN readers can think of other courts that may have failed to take the high road in the past or are neglecting to do so now. Any nominations for the next few judiciaries that should be getting in line for some sackcloth and ashes?