One mark of maturity for a young democracy occurs when independent judges hold powerful figures to account. Last week, Brazil passed such a threshold. Its Supreme Court gave a green light to an official probe of dozens of top federal lawmakers and a former president involving corruption at the state energy company Petrobras.
This end to impunity for high-level politicians is a triumph in a country where fewer than half of the people express faith in the legal system – especially in its ability to ensure accountability for those in power or big business. It should inspire other similar-sized democracies such as Turkey and Mexico. Too many countries are still weak in the kind of rule of law based on popular consent and constitutional principles.
And perhaps Brazil’s firmer embrace of rule of law might send a message to countries under one-party control, such as China. The top court in Beijing recently announced it would resist the “Western” concept of judicial independence. It will instead uphold rule by the Chinese Communist Party – not law derived from a founding document endorsed by a free and equal people.
In Brazil, a country of 200 million people, appreciation for independent institutions that can hold power in check has risen along with a demand for honesty and transparency in government. Mass protests in 2013, largely against corruption, have emboldened prosecutors to go after top businesspeople and politicians on the take. And in December, an official truth commission reported on human rights abuses during military rule that ended in 1988. The panel called for prosecution of specific individuals.
With the probe of scandal at Petrobras, where an estimated $3.8 billion changed hands in kickbacks, Brazil has now launched its biggest graft case, one that involves the ruling Workers’ Party. The lead prosecutor, Attorney General Rodrigo Janot, says Brazilians “no longer tolerate corruption and the gall of some bad public officials and private businessmen.”
Rule of law is more than a way to create public order and justice. It rests on a certainty that all persons are equal in the implementation of the legal and moral principles that guide a society, such as a right to individual freedom. In Brazil, as more people respect each other with equal regard, the more they will get the justice and clean government they seek.