When rule of law rules the roost

A ranking of countries on their rule of law helps highlight the world's ongoing need for equality in justice. Yet just as important is raising the integrity of prosecutors as well as all citizens.

South African Public Protector Thuli Madonsela gestures during a briefing with journalists last June in Johannesburg, South Africa.

This month, one of South Africa’s most popular figures, Thuli Madonsela, ended her term as Public Prosecutor after seven years of taking on powerful figures – including President Jacob Zuma – for corruption. Her popularity stems in large part from a widespread hope in post-apartheid South Africa to not only give all citizens a democratic say in determining the laws but to treat all people equally before the law, especially those in high office.

“Meaningful freedom,” Ms. Madonsela once said, “is freedom from all corrupt practices in state affairs and private life.”

For her integrity in upholding rule of law and her courage in the face of threats, a restaurant chain, Nando’s, posted this ad about Ms. Madonsela: “Always the griller. Never the chicken.” More to the point, the country’s chief justice, Mogoeng Mogoeng, said her investigations “have probably discouraged multitudes from allowing greed to drive them down the wasteful expenditure or corruption lane.”

Not every country enjoys having such corruption fighters, or those who work hard to ensure the equality of each person within a constitutional system of justice. When a country does firmly embrace rule of law, it can be explosive, as in Brazil. Prosecutors in that country, who have lately challenged a prevailing culture of impunity among politicians, have won a string of convictions for corruption.

The extent of each country’s commitment to rule of law is difficult to measure. Yet the World Justice Project, a Washington-based nonprofit group backed by the American Bar Association, has come out with its latest ranking of countries on how much each one practices rule of law. Its index, which uses 44 indicators, is based on more than 100,000 interviews with ordinary people and surveys of lawyers in 113 countries.  

Countries in the West as well as Singapore rank the highest on the index. The report also highlights countries that have made the most progress, such as Vietnam and Romania. Among nations in Latin America, Uruguay ranks the highest. In sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa remains the top performer – in part because of legal eagles like Madonsela.

Rule of law, states the report, is “the foundation for communities of peace, opportunity, and equity.” The idea of equality before the law is rooted in religious concepts about the dignity of each individual before a divine being. For centuries, this concept has been steadily adopted around the world, challenging the social impositions of race, position, or wealth.

Its spread, however, is not always top down. “The rule of law is not the rule of lawyers and judges; all elements of society are stakeholders,” states the project’s report. Madonsela, who won an award for integrity from the global corruption watchdog Transparency International, would agree.

In a 2014 talk about rule of law, she said, “Everyone is called upon to lead everywhere they are. The first person we must lead is ourselves. I must also add that leading ourselves is the most difficult leadership challenge each one of us is confronted with everyday of your life.”

With authenticity and a clear idea of one’s identity, she added, a person can gain the courage to lead with integrity. Or as she described her role as a prosecutor in South Africa, a “whispering truth to power.”

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