Experts unveil index to check nations’ rule of law

7/3/2008, 11:24 a.m. CDT

By WILLIAM J. KOLE

The Associated Press

   

VIENNA, Austria (AP) — Legal experts from 95 countries have devised a way of measuring how well leaders, officials and judges are meeting the basic principles of law and human rights.

The “Rule of Law Index” — unveiled Thursday at the World Justice Forum in Vienna — is aimed at helping the United States and others countries pursue more fair policies in the pursuit of terrorists, participants said.

“The so-called war on terror has brought with it subtle changes. We talk about ‘coercive interrogation’ instead of what it really is: torture,” former Irish President Mary Robinson said in a speech to the forum.

“We face the new ‘normal,’ which must be confronted,” she said. “For the majority of the world’s citizens, the rules of the game are fundamentally unfair.”

 

The architects of the index say it is meant to help ensure that everyone — from farmers and fishermen to parliamentarians and prime ministers — benefits from the rule of law.

But it could be used to press for reform in countries such as Zimbabwe, thrust into international isolation after sham elections last month, or Myanmar, where the ruling junta’s arrogant and ineffective decisions after a deadly cyclone endangered millions of lives.

“We are not in the blame and shame business,” said William H. Neukom, president of the American Bar Association, a founding member of the World Justice Project that began building the index 18 months ago and expects it will offer profiles on 100 nations within three more years.

Countries and communities committed to government accountability, good laws, effective due process and an ethical judiciary “are less vulnerable to the horrors of the human condition,” Neukom said.

The United States, though widely held up as a model of democracy and civil rights, has been severely criticized for abuses at its detention center for terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and its practice of “extraordinary rendition” — whereby the CIA transfers suspects to other countries for interrogation and, some allege, torture.

“The U.S. has a proud history,” Neukom said. “But there have been failures in abiding by the rule of law.”

The Rule of Law Index does not rank countries on a scale. Instead, it offers comprehensive snapshots of how governments and court systems are performing, based on interviews with local experts and with 1,000 randomly selected citizens in any given nation.

Among 13 key factors and 50 other variables used in measuring a country’s behavior are corruption, respect for property rights, government officials’ accountability to the law, access to services and the existence — or not_ of an impartial judiciary.

Officials dubbed Thursday’s prototype “Version 1.0” and said it would be tweaked to improve its usefulness in determining whether a nation is protecting or chipping away at basic legal concepts.

Straying from the rule of law can inflict lasting scars on a country, warned Emil Constantinescu, a former president of Romania, which shook off decades of communism in 1989.

 

“The rule of law was abolished for almost half a century, and instead, the terror of law was implemented,” Constantinescu said. Overcoming that legacy has proved to be “a struggle, not only for a day or a year, but for a lifetime.”

The prototype index was developed with help from justice experts from Yale University and Stanford University, as well as judges and lawyers in The Hague, Netherlands — home to the World Court, the International Criminal Court and the U.N. war crimes tribunal for former Yugoslavia.

Organizers conducted field tests in Argentina, Australia, Colombia, Spain, Sweden, and the U.S. researchers did the same in four cities: Chandigarh, India; Lagos, Nigeria; Santiago, Chile; and New York City.

They declined to rank the four, saying their findings were preliminary. Informally, New York appeared to come out on top.

But no country is perfect, experts said.

“No society, however advanced in other respects, has ever attained — let alone sustained — a perfect realization of the rule of law,” the World Justice Project said in a 77-page report outlining the index.

The World Justice Project hopes the results will help in constructively engaging rogue or lagging nations “in a relentless and long-term way,” Neukom said. “We think it’s time for action rather than words.”

source:AP NEWS/nola.com

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