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Crime & Justice

Rule of Law Strongest in Nordics, Weakest in Asia

WASHINGTON, Nov 29 2012 (IPS) - The rule of law – an essential element of good governance – is prospering best in the countries of northern Europe and worst in Uzbekistan, Zimbabwe and Cameroon, according to the latest edition of a five-year-old index released here Wednesday by the World Justice Project (WJP).

The Rule of Law Index, which this year assessed conditions in a record 97 countries whose combined population comprises roughly 94 percent of the world’s total, found that higher-income countries, especially in North America and Western Europe, generally respect the rule of law more than poor nations.

But the 233-page report also found strong performance on several of the eight factors the Index uses to quantify its assessments on the part of specific low- and middle-income countries.

Botswana, in particular, scored consistently among the higher-income countries, besting the United States, for example, in three factors: providing fair and equal access to the criminal and civil justice systems, and fair enforcement of regulations.

Another sub-Saharan African country, Ghana, also scored well in several categories, such as government transparency.

South Asia performed most poorly among the major regional blocs, with Pakistan and Bangladesh earning the worst scores.

“The rule of law is the foundation for communities of opportunity and equity – it is the predicate for the eradication of poverty, violence, corruption, pandemics, and other threats to civil society,” said WJP’s CEO, William Neukom, a former president of the American Bar Association, who launched the organisation six years ago with support from, among others, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Despite its U.S. origins, the WJP has sought to ensure that its assessment is based on principles that are “culturally universal, avoiding Western, Anglo-America, and other biases”.

The factors used in the Index contain “the basic elements of rule of law that are applicable to any country or culture around the world, from the United States to Liberia,” said Colombian jurist, Juan Carlos Botero, the project director.

A massive undertaking, the Index is unique among its kind in that it relies not only on statistics compiled by governments and independent monitoring groups, as well as the judgements of some 2,500 local and international legal experts.

It also takes account of the views of the general public in the 97 countries to help determine how the law is actually applied to ordinary people. One thousand respondents from the three largest cities in each country were interviewed about their own experience and perceptions regarding rule-of-law issues, such as corruption and discrimination in the legal system against the poor or marginalised groups.

The eight major factors used by the Index to define how well a country respects the rule of law include “limited government powers”, which includes government checks and balances and accountability for abuses by officials; the absence of corruption; the maintenance of civil order and security; respect for fundamental rights, including equal treatment for all; government transparency; fair and timely enforcement of regulations; and access to and the effectiveness of both the civil and criminal justice systems. It also addresses the performance of informal justice systems.

All 97 countries were assessed for these factors, scores for each of which were derived from weighted assessments of three to eight sub-factors. Altogether, 48 sub-factors were quantified.

The Index did not provide an aggregate score and ranking comprising all nine factors for each country, but, rather, only for each of the variables.

“You lose a lot of the richness of the report by providing an aggregate number, because a country may be very good in one category and very poor in another,” according to Alejandro Ponce, WJP’s senior economist. “The strength of the Index is that it is action-oriented; it tells people where improvement is needed.”

Thus, for example, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) scored fifth among the 97 countries, behind Singapore, Hong Kong, Finland and Denmark, on order and security and 12th on criminal justice, but 78th on fundamental rights.

India scored in the top half on limited government and government transparency but among the worst 15 on corruption and second to last (just above Pakistan) on order and security.

The best performers in Latin America on most of the first eight categories, according to the report, were Chile and Uruguay, while Brazil ranked third or fourth in all but order and security. Venezuela was the region’s worst performer six of the eight categories, while Bolivia’s scores also fell close to the bottom.

The Index noted that the region is characterised by strong contrasts, including recent movements towards greater openness and political freedoms at the same time that public institutions remain fragile and government accountability weak. It noted that crime rates in the region are the world’s highest and its criminal justice systems among the world’s worst.

Ghana and Botswana were the top performers, along with South Africa and Senegal, among the 18 sub-Saharan countries covered by the Index this year. Zimbabwe and Cameroon, on the other hand, received lowest or second lowest scores in most of the categories.

The report noted that most African countries do relatively well in protecting fundamental freedoms, despite a loack of checks on government power, but public institutions, including the courts, are generally inefficient and vulnerable to corruption.

After Western Europe and North America, East Asian countries generally gained the highest scores among all world regions, although there wide variations between countries.

The wealthy nations of Australia, New Zealand and Japan ranked among the top 15 globally in nearly all categories and South Korea and Singapore within the top 25. Globally, Singapore also ranked first in order and security, third in criminal justice, and fourth in civil justice.

The worst Asian performer, on the other hand, was Cambodia, which received the lowest score in the region in four out of eight categories. The report also noted that Vietnam, China, and Malaysia need to do more to ensure judicial independence and respect fundamental rights, including labour rights.

Of the seven countries covered in the Middle East and North Africa, the UAE and Tunisia generally gained the highest scores in most categories. Morocco topped the list on government transparency even as it was ranked worst on corruption.

Lebanon topped the list on fundamental rights, as did Jordan and Iran on their civil justice systems. Iran scored the worst in three of four categories, including government transparency and checks and balances.

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at

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