[Robert McCorquodale is the Director of the British Institute of International and Comparative Law, Professor of International Law and Human Rights, University of Nottingham, and Barrister, Brick Court Chambers, London. This is the introductory post in the Defining the Rule of Law Symposium, based on this article (free access for six months).]
References to the ‘rule of law’ in international law books, articles and blogs are everywhere. Yet very few of these authors set out what they mean by an international rule of law. Most of those who engage with the idea of an international rule of law dismiss it – almost with a shrug – as being impossible in a system without a clear binding governance process and without a court with uniform jurisdiction over all matters.
In my article – Defining the International Rule of Law: Defying Gravity? – which is published in the International and Comparative Law Quarterly, I offer a definition of the international rule of law. I also seek to show that an international rule of law can exist in the international system. My starting point is that, in order to understand the rule of law, and whether it can apply to the international system, it is necessary to clarify what are its key objectives. In my view, based on the writing of jurists such as Tom Bingham and by the Venice Commission, it is evident that the rule of law has four key objectives: to uphold legal order and stability; to provide equality of application of law; to enable access to justice for human rights; and to settle disputes before an independent legal body.
International organisations have taken up the idea of the importance of the rule of law with considerable alacrity. For example, the Declaration on Principles of International Law refers to the ‘paramount importance of the Charter of the United Nations in the promotion of the rule of law among nations’. Reference to the rule of law is found in Security Council resolutions on peacekeeping, good governance and post-conflict, as well as in statements by the World Bank and as a target in the Sustainable Development Goals. The Declaration on the Rule of Law was made in 2012 by a UN High-Level Meeting on the Rule of Law at the National and International Levels. The UN has provided a definition of the term, which it sets out on its rule of law website:
“The Secretary-General has described the rule of law as “a principle of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the State itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards. It requires, as well, measures to ensure adherence to the principles of supremacy of law, equality before the law, accountability to the law, fairness in the application of the law, separation of powers, participation in decision-making, legal certainty, avoidance of arbitrariness and procedural and legal transparency”.
My difficulty is that almost all these statements and other attempts to consider the rule of law at the international level are really transpositions of the rule of law from national systems and national institutions to the international system. Given the considerable structural and institutional differences between national legal systems and the international legal system, this transposition is misconceived. Indeed, many of those who reject the possibility of an international rule of law also tend to confuse the compliance with international law with having a rule of law, or they expect that the rule of law is absolute: it exists or it does not exist in a legal system. This fails to understand the there are varying degrees of adherence to the rule of law. The Rule of Law Index shows this through its indexing of the relative compliance of states with the rule of law, where some states comply with most elements, some comply with very few and there are many in the middle. This must be equally applicable at the international level, where complete actualization of all the elements of the rule of law is unlikely and failure to attain them all does not mean there is no international rule of law at all.
So a definition of an international rule of law is possible if it is examined in terms of the four objectives of a rule of law: to uphold legal order and stability; to provide equality of application of law; to enable access to justice for human rights; and to settle disputes before an independent legal body. I explain in the article that these objectives can be found in the international system. I include access to justice for human rights deliberately, because a rule of law without this justice element is a rule by laws and not a rule of law. The protection of human rights should also not be confused with the rule of law as, while the latter includes access to justice (such by a fair trial) within it, the rule of law does not include all human rights.
I explore some ways in which this definition of the international rule of law can be applied in the current international legal system. This includes the importance of pacta sunt servanda, which is part of customary international law (and probably part of jus cogens), as applying to all states (and non-state actors) and as part of the international legal order. It also includes the amazing array of international dispute settlement procedures. While there is no compulsory procedure before one court, there are certainly many areas of international law for which there is a means to settle disputes before an independent legal body. Of course, it remains difficult to ensure compliance by the UN and other international bodies with their human rights obligations, yet the notion of access to justice is present, especially in UN administered territories and has been applied to corporations, so there is a lack of adherence to the international rule of law and not the lack of its existence.
A new approach to defining the international rule of law will, hopefully, make it easier to see how it is applied internationally to international organisations, to states and to non-state actors acting transnationally. This could lead to increasing adherence to the international rule of law.