Web Exclusive: Jan Eliasson’s Remarks to Columbia Law School Students

Fall 2013

Download a PDF of the remarks here.

ADDRESS TO COLUMBIA LAW SCHOOL CENTRE ON GLOBAL GOVERNANCE: “Strengthening Peace, Development and Human Rights through the Rule of Law”

New York
27 November 2012

[Salutations]
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Faculty and students,

It is a pleasure to be here with you today.  Thank you for your warm welcome.

Thank you in particular to the Centre on Global Governance for organizing this get-together.

One of the Centre’s many merits is its efforts promote contacts between the academic and policy communities.

I have some experience in both, having been a Visiting Professor at Uppsala University and Gothenburg University in Sweden, and having had the privilege to serve in a variety of diplomatic, political and policy posts.

And I am convinced that we are all enriched by such exchanges — thus my presence here today.

I also share with the Centre a belief in the importance of inter-disciplinary approaches to today’s complex global problems.

The world is increasingly interdependent.  Local problems have regional and global implications, as we are witnessing in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Likewise, global problems have profoundly local manifestations — the effects of climate change, terrorism and organized crime on such day-to-day needs as food, governance and security.

In this rapidly shrinking world, the big issues we face need to be looked at and addressed from multiple angles.  In this spirit, I want to focus today on the inter-dependence of peace, development and human rights — and in particular how the rule of law is crucial for strengthening these three pillars of the work of the United Nations. 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Two months ago, the General Assembly held a historic meeting on the rule of law.  Certainly, over the years, the rule of law has figured prominently in our work — which should come as no surprise since our Organization is founded on the United Nations Charter, a constitutional piece of international law.

But never before had world leaders gathered at such high levels, in such high numbers, to discuss the subject.  Never before had 193 Member States agreed on what the rule of law is, namely that “all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the State itself, are accountable to just, fair and equitable laws and are entitled without any discrimination, to equal protection of the law”. 

It is worth noting some of the Declaration’s highlights.

The Declaration covered the breadth of the rule of law, from the importance of independent judiciaries to informal justice systems, transitional justice, transnational organized crime, terrorism, corruption and international trade. 

It called for an age of accountability in respect of serious international crimes such as genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, and reaffirmed the role of the International Criminal Court in the global fight against impunity.  This is something that the Secretary-General has been advocating for a long time, and we were delighted that it found a consensus in the Declaration.

It emphases the importance of the rule of law as a key element in conflict prevention, peacekeeping, conflict resolution and peacebuilding, and stressed that it was a fundamental building block to sustainable peace and security.

The Declaration also detailed the strong linkages between the rule of law and sustainable development, as well as with the protection human rights. 

Let us now take a closer look at each of these areas. 

First, the links between the rule of law and peace and security. 

At the international level, all states are bound in the conduct of their international relations by the UN Charter, as well as the wider body of international law developed under the auspices of the United Nations.

This body of laws covers the spectrum of interaction between states, and regulates their daily conduct.

All states, no matter how big or small, no matter how powerful or not, have a right to expect other states to be subject to these laws, to apply them in their international relations, and to be equal before them.

When disputes arise between states over the application of these laws, the International Court of Justice is available to adjudicate.  It is a pity that only 67 Member States have recognised the compulsory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice, and the rule of law at the international level would be significantly strengthened if more were to accede.

When adhered to, therefore, the rule of law at the international level makes the conduct of Member States predictable and legitimate, and provides a means to peacefully resolve any disputes.  It is the anchor and foundation of international peace and security. 

At the national level, the rule of law provides the basis for stability by fostering the development of norms, social practices and institutions that ensure the independent functioning of core governance institutions. This strengthens the formal decision-making processes to which political leaders are bound by, and curbs the arbitrary exercise of political power.  This is especially important in post-conflict states in order to solidify and build on the political settlement.

Second, curbing the arbitrary exercise of power through the rule of law is also fundamental for human rights, according to which all individuals have rights they can claim vis-à-vis state authority, and states have corresponding duties to uphold.  Any disputes regarding the scope and application of these rights and duties are best resolved through independent courts staffed by professional judges, independent human rights commissions and ombudspersons.  These core rule of law institutions and mechanisms are some of the most essential tools in empowering people to defend and claim their human rights. 

Finally, the rule of law greatly strengthens the conditions for sustainable development.

The most direct connection is, of course, through the creation of a legal framework for business and labour, enforced by independent and professional courts. This allows for the building of a sustainable labour market, and the creation of a vigorous enabling environment for business and investment. 

But that is not all.  The rule of law makes social and economic opportunities available to all members of society.  It provides a right of access to public services, and makes public entities accountable for delivery those services. 

These linkages are not one way relationships. As the Declaration adopted on 24 September states: “We are convinced that the rule of law and development are strongly interrelated and mutually reinforcing, that the advancement of the rule of law … is essential for sustained and inclusive economic growth… the eradication of poverty and hunger and the full realization of all human rights and fundamental freedoms… all of which in turn reinforce the rule of law….” 

These mutually reinforcing linkages bring back the fundamental formula of the UN World Summit in September 2005.  There is no peace without development; there is no development without peace; there is no lasting peace and sustainable development without respect for human rights.

The World Bank’s 2011 World Development Report advanced this idea by bringing forward concrete evidence that that three interlinked issues are central in breaking cycles of fragility: security, justice and jobs.  Each can be strengthened through the rule of law. 

We see this need for an integrated approach in conflict-torn areas, where transitional justice contributes to stabilizing security. By prosecuting perpetrators, we begin the process of healing. By facilitating truth and reconciliation, we allow communities to re-unite. By fostering reparations and restitution, we plant the seeds of economic growth and empowerment

Such an integrated approach requires the United Nations to pull together prosecutors and lawyers, social workers, human rights professionals and development experts under the banner of the rule of law.   

It compels us to break down walls and develop truly integrated and holistic approaches.

It means we must mainstream the rule of law into all of our work. 

By mainstreaming the rule of law in our own work, we will also improve the ways in which we support Member States in strengthening the rule of law.  Here, the United Nations has a strong comparative advantage to offer.

We provide rule of law assistance in over 150 Member States.  These activities take place in several contexts, including development, conflict, post-conflict and peacebuilding situations. Three or more United Nations entities engage in rule of law activities in at least 70 countries, and five or more entities in over 25 countries. 17 peace operations have rule of law mandates

We support Member States on a wide range of rule of law issues.  We work with police, judges corrections officers and other security sector professionals to develop a functioning criminal justice chain that meets international standards and can combat both national and transnational threats.

We focus on civil and administrative justice delivery, including on issues of housing, land and property rights, which are often the root causes of conflicts.

We strive to enhance access to justice for marginalized communities through strengthening civil society, training paralegal staff and using mobile courts. 

We aim to bring traditional justice systems in line with minimum international justice standards.

We seek to universalize birth registration and reduce statelessness.

And we work with parliaments to ensure that laws that are promulgated have been fully scrutinized and transparently debated.

The scope and breadth of these efforts gives the United Nations a strong comparative advantage in providing Member States with holistic and sector-wide rule of law assistance.
The United Nations has also developed a large body of universally agreed norms and standards. Much work, however, remains in implementing these at the domestic level.  The United Nations is already working successfully with Member States in a number of areas, for instance in anti-corruption and through the various human rights treaty bodies, but much remains to be done. Because the United Nations is the forum for the development of these international norms, as well as their custodian, it has a strong comparative advantage in assisting Member States in implementing them domestically. 

Finally, as an impartial organization representing the international community as a whole, the United Nations is ideally placed to support national initiatives to strengthen the rule of law without fear that external interests may taint the advice and support given in this sensitive governance area.  Again, this is a strong reason why the UN should have a lead role in providing rule of law assistance.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I want to conclude with some remarks on a hugely important undertaking that is just getting started, and in which the rule of law can play a significant role.

I refer to efforts of Member States and the international community to articulate a post-2015 development agenda.

Our work for the Millennium Development Goals has achieved remarkable progress in reducing extreme poverty, combating the spread of HIV/AIDS, providing universal primary education and taking other steps to meet the needs of the world’s poorest.

But of course, progress has been uneven, within and among countries, and too many people remain in difficulty and despair.  As we press to meet all the goals, for all people, by the agreed deadline of 2015, the debate on what framework will succeed the MDGs has become very active. 

There is a strong sense that the post-2015 framework needs to include issues and ideas that are acknowledged as crucial to sustainable development but which were not included among the MDGs.  One such issue is the rule of law. 

The challenge for the United Nations, therefore, will be to present for Member States’ consideration a post-2015 development agenda that includes the rule of law, and a set of related indicators.  This is a challenge as the post 2015 international development agenda needs to retain its simplicity in order to reach the wide acceptability and recognition that the MDGs achieved.  The rule of law, as a multilayered principle of governance, does not necessarily lend itself well to measurements. 

Nevertheless, there are concrete ideas which the United Nations and Member States could develop and jointly push forward. For instance, targets related to birth registration could be considered, given that the exercise of rights and citizenship intrinsic to the rule of law stem from this official act.  Would homicide rates be valuable as an indicator for security? What kind of data would reflect access to justice for a population? This is an area where the important contributions of the research and academic community will be essential to assist the policy makers.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

This is an exciting time for the rule of law.  Its centrality is being recognized as never before – not only in UN conference rooms but in communities across the world.  We are witnessing it in the Arab spring, where demands for justice and the rule of law form the core of the protest movements that have toppled long-standing regimes.  Justice cannot be divorced from development or stability.  Justice is at the core of human rights. Justice and the rule of law must be given their rightful place in all of our work.

Let me finish with a quote from a fellow countryman, Dag Hammarskjöld, who uniquely shaped the United Nations: 

[T]he principle of justice…must be considered as applicable without distinction or discrimination, with one measure and one standard valid for the strong as well as for the weak.  Thus the demand of the Charter for a rule of law aims at the substitution of right for might and makes the Organization the natural protector of rights which countries, without it, might find it more difficult to assert and to get respected.

As usual, Hammarskjöld captured the essence of the subject at hand.

As we seek to carry this work forward, I look forward to your thoughts and contributions.

Thank you.