Democracy and the Rule of Law

One of my major assignments with IBJ was to research and write a paper on the connection between democracy and the rule of law. The purpose was to demonstrate that democracy could not exist without the rule of law, and that only caring about the rule of law during elections is simply not enough to sustain democracy. I am hopeful that some of my language will be useful for IBJ grant applications in the future.


The Rule of Law is a millennia old principal referring to the way by which states are governed.  As compared with Rule by Law, where the government uses the law to govern and is considered to be above the law, Rule of Law means that all entities, including the government, must adhere to the supremacy of the law. The Rule of Law is a nearly a universal value, and the United Nations General Assembly regularly identifies “human rights, the rule of law and democracy” as universal and indivisible values of the United Nations. The United Nations has also prioritized the Rule of Law in Sustainable Development Goal 16 (SDG16): Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions. Specifically, SDG16 emphasizes that the Rule of Law plays a key role in promoting “peaceful, just, and inclusive societies and . . . ensuring sustainable development.”  One of the SDG16 targets is to promote the rule of law at both national and international levels to ensure equal access to justice for all.


The Rule of Law is closely linked with the ideals of democracy. A democratic state under the Rule of Law is a state where citizens elect their own leaders, and the government itself is bound by the law, while also helping to ensure that the law is respected among the citizens of the state. Democracy cannot exist without the Rule of Law, especially the rule that dictates who should occupy public office given the results of elections. However, only supporting the Rule of Law during an election season is not enough. Democratic stability depends on a self-enforcing equilibrium. In other words, political officials must respect democracy’s limits on their actions, particularly regarding the rights of citizens. Institutions that are self-perpetuating and do not operate based on individuality of single actors are powerful actors stabilizing that equilibrium. In a stable, self-perpetuating institution all conflicts are solved according to the institutional rules, and therefore, the Rule of Law stabilizes the democratic society. Rule of Law in a democratic institution allows governments to work their will through general legislation, and then to be subject to that legislation themselves.


Democratic stability depends on the self-enforcing equilibrium of the Rule of Law, which is often inherently vulnerable. The viability of the Rule of Law ultimately depends on the citizens: if they elect leaders who will violate the Rule of Law, the Rule of Law will decline rapidly. In fragile, conflict-affected societies, the Rule of Law is particularly fragile. Legislation and regulations for maintaining order do not have an immediate effect on behavior or security, and thus on democracy. Implementing sound Rule of Law principles in conflict-affected societies creates distinct challenges, because in addition to promoting the Rule of Law in judicial and legislative institutions, the security sector—including the military, police, and prisons—must also have a firm foundation in the Rule of Law.


            International Bridges to Justice promotes the Rule of Law around the globe by encouraging early access to the accused, cooperating with governments to create best practice legislation, creating awareness about basic rights and protections within a system, and training defenders to provide effective representation. Additionally, International Bridges to Justice is at the forefront of implementing SDG 16, particularly the access to justice component. IBJ’s work strengthening the Rule of Law around the world has inherently strengthened democracy as well.


Previously, I had only given thought to democracy and the rule of law as separate but intersecting concepts. This assignment allowed me to think much deeper about the how the two concepts are entirely codependent. IBJ’s work to promote the rule of law is essential in promoting democracy around the globe. I am hopeful that the research I did can be of some help in furthering this mission.