December 1, 2011

Strengthening the Rule of Law at Home and Abroad A Leadership Role for Senior Lawyers

By James R. Silkenat

The rule of law has become a very important topic for lawyers, government officials, and civil society leaders of all types, both internationally and at the local and national levels in the United States. It comes up in conferences, speeches, articles, and initiatives by widely diverse groups. Though the term is frequently misused or misunderstood, the rule of law is at the center of numerous efforts to eradicate poverty, build economic prosperity, reduce corruption, promote peace, improve public health, and strengthen education. The failure by governments to provide transparent institutions, fair and accessible legal processes, or fundamental justice for their citizens has a corrosive effect on societies and economies. It is now widely accepted that strengthening the rule of law is crucial to achieving society’s most fundamental goals.

Given the pervasiveness of the term and the priority it has with policy makers and pundits, what role can experienced American lawyers play in strengthening the rule of law in their own communities, or more broadly, in the world at large where the concept has such a pervasive effect?

One way for senior U.S. lawyers to play such a role is through the World Justice Project (WJP), a comparatively new multidisciplinary effort to strengthen the rule of law around the world. The WJP is an independent, nongovernmental, and politically neutral initiative begun by the ABA in 2006 under the leadership of then president-elect William H. Neukom.

Concerned that the rule of law was under threat in the United States and abroad, he was inspired to create a means to bring together different actors—in new ways— to advance the rule of law. The WJP became an independent 501(c)(3) tax-exempt nonprofit organization in 2009. This article will explore (1) why the rule of law is important, (2) the ways the WJP works to strengthen the rule of law, and (3) ways in which senior lawyers may want to participate in WJP programs and activities.

The WJP has developed a working definition of the rule of law based on four universal principles: (1) the government and its officials and agents are accountable under the law, (2) the laws are clear, publicized, stable, and fair, and they protect fundamental rights, including security of persons and property, (3) the process by which the laws are enacted, administered, and enforced is accessible, fair, and efficient, and (4) the laws are upheld and access to justice is provided by competent, independent, and ethical law enforcement officials, attorneys or representatives, and judges who are of sufficient number, have adequate resources, and reflect the makeup of the communities they serve. These four principles provide a framework for creating systems and cultural conditions allowing for the development of communities grounded in justice and opportunity.

The WJP is based on two complementary premises. First, the rule of law is the foundation for communities of opportunity and equity. Second, multidisciplinary collaboration is the most effective way to advance the rule of law. Through three complementary initiatives—Mainstreaming, Scholarship, and the WJP Rule of Law Index—the WJP tries to translate these fundamental principles into rule of law advancements around the world.

The WJP’s mainstreaming efforts are at the core of its mission. While there are many organizations working to strengthen the rule of law and democracy in the world, the WJP is unique due to this emphasis on multidisciplinary collaboration. For too long, efforts to enhance the rule of law and expand access to justice have focused solely on those affiliated with the legal profession. While lawyers and judges are an integral component of promoting effective rule of law, the WJP is a firm believer that we are all stakeholders. The WJP encourages and engages nonlegal professionals—from artists and doctors, to scientists and journalists—to view the world through the lens of the rule of law and to take action to strengthen the rule of law in their professions and communities.

The WJP holds outreach meetings with leaders from a range of fields to mainstream rule of law advancement— to make it as fundamental to the thinking and work of doctors, educators, journalists, and other professionals as it is to lawyers. These meetings create the basis for collaborative efforts to advance the rule of law.

The first and second World Justice Forums—the WJP’s signature conference—were held in July 2008 and November 2009, respectively, in Vienna, Austria, and brought together nearly 1,000 leaders of various disciplines throughout the world. The third forum will take place June 20–23, 2011, in Barcelona, Spain. The WJP has also held nine regional conferences on five continents since 2007.

The primary focus of these mainstreaming conferences is to develop concrete, realistic, multidisciplinary action plans that advance the rule of law. Participants at WJP conferences commit to take action to strengthen the rule of law. The WJP draws on individuals who are willing not just to participate in conferences, but also to translate the ideas they help cultivate into action across the world. In working sessions, participants determine what specific actions they will take to improve the rule of law in the year following the event.


For example, some 80 action plans were developed in the wake of the November 2009 World Justice Forum II, ranging in scope from providing advocacy training to women’s rights groups in the Middle East and North Africa region to conducting educational activities on environmental rights in Sri Lanka to grassroots human rights and rule of law education in Zimbabwe.

While the WJP works around the globe, it recognizes that the United States is not exempt from rule of law challenges. In individual states across the nation, state and local bar associations, law schools, and other local leaders are working with the WJP to sponsor state-level multidisciplinary rule of law meetings. Participants at these meetings have included business people, community service leaders, educators, health care professionals, judges, lawyers, politicians, and religious figures. Since 2007, more than 30 state-level rule of law outreach meetings have been held across the country.

Many of the U.S. mainstreaming initiatives have focused on educating youth on the rule of law. The WJP partnered with the Virginia Bar Association in 2008 to develop a program to educate and engage middle school students on what the rule of law means to them, and to their communities. Recently, the WJP also helped the North Carolina Bar Association develop a similar pilot program for high school students in the state. The WJP uses its rule of law educational programs in the United States as models for rule of law education programs throughout the world—similar rule of law education program for students have been developed in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.

To support the action-oriented programs conceived by the multidisciplinary coalitions formed at the meetings, the WJP established the Opportunity Fund, which provides seed grants to these efforts to advance the rule of law. Established at the World Justice Forum I in 2008, subsequent rounds of the Opportunity Fund have supported projects emerging from the World Justice Forum II and regional mainstreaming meetings.

Opportunity Fund programs work on a wide variety of rule of law initiatives, ranging from capacity building to aid services for the poor in India to legal aid training for women in Lebanon to developing a model for delivering justice services in China. Opportunity Fund projects all involve actors from multiple disciplines working together to advance an array of issues in the fields of public health, the environment, human rights, the arts, engineering, access to justice, education, and many others. The Opportunity Fund encourages program ownership by local partners, innovative and multidisciplinary methods for implementation, and measurable impact and with long-term sustainability.

Many Opportunity Fund programs combat societal ills affecting the most vulnerable populations due to inaccessibility of education and justice. For example, in Gambia, the Opportunity Fund supports a program to combat gender-based violence through community and youth education. Through educational rule of law radio programs, informational materials, and training events, women and girls are made aware of their rights and taught the vehicles available to demand justice before responsible government authorities for themselves or other victims of gender-based violence.

Similarly, in Sierra Leone, the Opportunity Fund supports a program that bridges the gap between rights legislation and the real availability of these rights to local communities, partnering with local chiefs and headmen to disseminate simplified, translated versions of gender rights laws through radio shows and community gatherings.

In addition to its efforts to mainstream the rule of law through multidisciplinary meetings and cross-disciplinary rule of law programs, the WJP also supports rigorous scholarship examining the contributions of the rule of law to various aspects of economic, political, and social development. Nobel Laureates Dr. James Heckman and Dr. Amartya Sen led a multidisciplinary group of scholars who explored the causal relationship between the rule of law and communities of opportunity and equity. Their work resulted in the publication of Global Perspectives on the Rule of Law (Routledge Press, 2010). Professor Yash Ghai led a second team of distinguished international scholars who conducted a series of comparative case studies on how vulnerable members of society access justice. These scholarly articles are currently available in Marginalized Communities and Access to Justice (Routledge Press, 2010).

The WJP Rule of Law Index is a new quantitative assessment tool designed to offer a detailed and comprehensive picture of the extent to which countries around the world adhere to the rule of law. The index’s highly detailed factors and subfactors provide a comprehensive assessment of the rule of law in practice in each of the indexed countries. The index provides original data that reflect the conditions experienced by the general population.

The Rule of Law Index is unique in its exclusive focus on countries’ adherence to a complete set of specific rule of law indicators. While other indices cover aspects of the rule of law, they do not yield a full picture of rule of law compliance. The index has received praise from academic experts as containing “[t]he most sophisticated rule of law indicators developed so far ”

The index currently covers 35 countries; coverage of the index will expand to 70 countries in 2011 and 100 countries in 2012.

Policy makers have taken note of the index as well. President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia has cited it repeatedly in speeches before the Colombian Judiciary, as supporting evidence underscoring the need to reform the Colombian criminal investigation system—a reform that has been lagging for 15 years. In Singapore, in an address opening the Singaporean Legal New Year, Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong referenced Singapore’s performance in the index, specifically, its high performance in the area of access to civil justice.

In the four years since its founding, the WJP has created a global venue for many professionals and ordinary citizens for viewing the rule of law as an integral part of their daily work and life. By building an active network of governmental and nongovernmental leaders from a multitude of professions and nations, the WJP is promoting a greater understanding of the rule of law, creating a new mechanism for advancing it throughout the world and helping to develop communities of opportunity and equity.

For senior lawyers the opportunities to participate in WJP rule of law activities and programs are numerous, ranging from counseling specific rule of law initiatives abroad to helping organize state-based rule of law conferences in the United States to joining with others in the ABA Senior Lawyers Division to “adopt” or sponsor multidisciplinary rule of law activities on their own.

For additional information about the WJP, please see its website at www.worldjusticeproject.org or contact the author at jsilkenat@sandw.com.

James R. Silkenat, a partner in the New York office of Sullivan & Worcester, is director and vice president of the World Justice Project and is co-chair of the Member- ship Committee of the ABA Senior Lawyers Division.