International Development Law Organization

In The Arab World, The Courage To Be Boring

4 Oct 2013

This piece was originally published in the Global Post.

Justice is scarce in Arab countries where the rule of law is absent. Democracy, it turns out, does not breed the rule of law; all indications are that it is the rule of law that breeds democracy.

By Irene Khan, Director-General, IDLO

ROME, Italy — The recent United Nations Security Council action on Syria may ultimately do away with that country’s chemical weapons, and this can only be a good thing.

But while the symbolism is strong, the scope of a possible deal is limited: the agreement will neither end the conflict, nor contribute substantially to peace in the region.

Nor would a military strike against Syria have achieved these goals. Peace — of the solid, lasting kind — demands a painstaking effort across the region, conducted below the radar of conventional diplomacy or military action.

One feature that is shared across the Arab world is a fundamental deficit of the rule of law. Addressing this deficit might not prevent further conflict, but not doing so will certainly make hostilities more probable.

In many Arab nations, weak institutions, bad laws, privilege and discrimination mean that social, political, and ethno-religious fault lines are only deepening. For the Christian minority of Egypt and the Shia majority of Bahrain, for the Sunnis and gays of Iraq and the child brides of Yemen, for women and the poor and the unbelievers, safety and equality are sorely lacking.

In some places, the Arab Spring has come and gone. In others, it never arrived. Either way, nearly three years on, there is scarce justice for citizens. Court systems are not clean or transparent. Little due process is expected or accorded. What rights exist are capriciously granted. Bribery and influence peddling are rife. Jobs go to the well connected.

It has become apparent that toppling autocracies and holding elections does not, by itself, create a culture of justice. Electoral democracy should not be dismissed — far from it. But we must recognize its limitations.

The vote in Egypt, as we saw, delivered neither inclusive representation nor genuine popular sovereignty nor an accountable state. What it did mostly was dramatize national rifts and social dysfunction. Democracy, it turns out, does not breed the rule of law; all indications are that it is the rule of law that breeds democracy.

For this reason, we must overcome our obsession with formal process and make the rule of law, broadly and flexibly defined, part of overall development strategies.

Yes, there should be a ballot in every Arab hand. But we must strive to ensure that the hand that holds the ballot can write; that it is not shriveled from cold or malnutrition; that it is engaged in some productive activity, rather than used to beg for food, bribe officials or beat women. For popular votes to matter, a whole infrastructure of justice and social empowerment must gradually be created. Building the rule of law in the Arab world will be the sum of many projects rather than one big-bang job. The international community of multilateral institutions, NGOs, donor governments and in-country partners must seek to empower those Arab populations, and target those aspects of Arab life, which may act as rule-of-law multipliers. We must invest in gender equality, not just for its own sake, but because women boost peace. Mass literacy, too, will spur critical thinking and weaken arbitrary fiat.

Rights and services for children and fair employment and anti-discrimination initiatives are essential. Courts must be strengthened, judges trained. Conflict-of-interest legislation, environmental lawmaking, land registries and resource management systems, are critical mechanisms to clarify property rights and facilitate responsible investment. We must, in short, prioritize governance over government.

Set against the urgency of ending conflict and the white-hot option of military action, legal measures may seem on the bland side. But if we wish Arab societies well, if we want to avoid future Syrias, then we must have the courage — and the vision — to be boring.