International Development Law Organization

Romania, 25 Years On: ‘We Didn’t Know What Rule of Law Meant.’

Romania is preparing to swear in a new President, Klaus Iohannis, this weekend [December 21]. The election as head of state of a man from an ethnic and religious minority – Mr. Iohannis is a German-speaking Lutheran – has been hailed as evidence of democratic maturity in a region still marked, in places, by conflict, ethnic bias and authoritarian backsliding.

Romania itself, while a member of the European Union, still struggles with development challenges. Prosperity has not been equally distributed; high levels of emigration deplete the skills pool; and corruption continues to be seen as a brake on otherwise encouraging economic progress. Over the last few years, increasingly independent prosecutors and courts have been tackling sleaze head on: dozens of politicians are in jail or facing embezzlement charges, together with many senior officials and prominent business figures.

The beginning of Mr. Iohannis’s term coincides with ceremonies marking 25 years since the fall of the regime led by Nicolae Ceausescu. When Romania’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Simona Miculescu, sat down with IDLO’s News editor Andre Vornic recently, she spoke of the ‘tremendous joy’ she felt back in the days of the Romanian Revolution. It was, she said, a joy that endured to this day – together with pride at the road traveled since then.

Simona Miculescu: In Romania we had one of the most repressive regimes in Eastern Europe – and maybe in the world. We had a complete dictatorship. ‘Rule of law’ was a term that Romanians didn’t know. The institutions of the state were not serving the people: they were serving one person and his entourage. So Romania is clear testimony to the fact that once you get your freedom, and once you know what to do with it, the sky’s the limit. You just need persistence, and hard work, and a lot of courage.

Andre Vornic: So how tough has it been – particularly carrying the people with you? Building institutions is never an easy task.

SM: It’s the toughest exercise. You can create laws, you can change laws. But changing the mindsets of a nation that was brainwashed for decades? That’s the toughest job, the slowest process, and also the most important objective when trying to build a democracy: how to create a mindset that welcomes a democratic system. I remember very well that for a while in Romania we didn’t know what to do with our freedoms. We didn’t know what human rights were. The public awareness of the rights that you can enjoy in a new society – that’s essential.


AV: The rule of law in Romanian public discourse has come to be almost exclusively identified with the fight against corruption – but much less with, say, access to justice for the disadvantaged. Do you see that as a problem?

SM: If you only read the Romanian press, you could get that feeling. Of course the anti-corruption mechanisms that we have created are the ones with the most visible results. And of course the media is interested in the more sensational side of social life. But we’ve been through so many stages in building up the rule of law: we gave ourselves a new Constitution, then updated it a decade later. We legislated the separation of powers, an independent judiciary, the protection of human rights. Less visibly, we have taken very ambitious measures to modernize the judicial system and the judicial process, and to enhance legal certainty. These are all steps in an evolution, and we should make more efforts to promote them – not so much at the international level, but domestically, in order to alter this perception you mention, and which indeed tends to prevail.

AV: But then, conversely, perhaps that is an experience you should share at the international level. What is your advice to countries that are lower down the rule-of-law value chain?

SM: I would be wary of advising others, because I remember how proud Romanians were, back in the 1990s, when they felt they were being lectured. But we’ve been very active, for example, in promoting the universality of the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court. On the International Court of Justice, we have taken steps in the Romanian parliament to accept its jurisdiction as compulsory. When it comes to sharing experience, what we’ve learned is that in building the rule of law, you should keep at it, never look back, and never feel discouraged.


AV: What about the post-2015 development agenda? What is your government doing on that front?

SM: Romania was a very active member of the Open Group on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The outcome document took 18 months to complete – and I would like to highlight our constant plea, during those 18 months of negotiations, for the presence of the rule of law in that document. Now, we may not be entirely happy with the result, but it’s something that motivates us to step up this advocacy of the rule of law – because there is still time until the SDGs are finalized in 2015.

AV: How do you respond to the argument that we shouldn’t worry so much about the words ‘rule of law,’ and more about the reality of the thing. I’ve heard it said, in the SDG context, that if some words are controversial, we should put them to one side rather than ‘fetishize’ them.

SM: Having worked in the UN for the past six years, I can tell you one thing: words are crucial. Of course implementation is essential, but everything starts with words. A relationship between two people starts with words. So I wouldn’t minimize their importance. If you saw how much we struggle at the UN not over a word, but over a nuance, over a comma, over a full stop…

AV: And if we broaden the lens, do you think there is a specifically East European contribution to this debate?

SM: I think so, because East European nations speak from recent experience. And there is no more valuable contribution than speaking on the basis of what you’ve lived through.