When 26-year old Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on December 17, 2010, his act resonated across an entire region and sparked what is known as the Arab Spring. His cry echoed across the world because it was a universal call for justice, basic fairness, and equal treatment. Indeed, it was a call for the rule of law.
Nearly two years later, the United Nations has a unique opportunity to answer that call when the UN General Assembly holds a high level meeting on the rule of law this September. The UN member states are in a position to hold a serious discussion on how to advance the rule of law through the creation of tools and fora where real engagement can occur. Convened against a backdrop of the paralysis of the UN Security Council over the bloodbath in Syria and political transitions in the Middle East and elsewhere, few topics are of more pressing concern to the international community.
Though popular cynicism would tell us that there is nothing of less use than a UN discussion, these debates can have an impact far beyond the General Assembly’s Chamber. Some resolutions resulting from such debates have paved the way for groundbreaking developments on global issues such as the environment, child labour, racial discrimination, and matters of justice. Furthermore, the outcomes of these meetings can have irreversible impacts for years to come: the Universal Declaration of the Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly in 1948, continues to change the face of 21st century law and practice throughout the world.
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Yet the UN record on the rule of law is hardly outstanding, and decisive action is needed urgently in many countries. On virtually every continent we see repressive governments or violent conflicts with scores of victims and untold suffering. As the world watches Syria burn, calls for UN action have done little to motivate a polarised Security Council. Given the Council’s deadlock which resulted in the resignation of Kofi Annan and faltering of his mediating efforts in Syria, the General Assembly has a unique opportunity to be particularly relevant. If the UN’s commitment to human rights and justice are going to be more than rhetoric, the rule of law must be at the very heart of the UN’s work.
Recent decades have shown that the rule of law can be established by confronting a repressive or violent past through establishing the truth about abuses, holding those most responsible for mass crimes accountable, providing reparations for victims and reforming key institutions such as the police and security forces. Working in concert, these measures are often referred to as transitional justice, and provide a basis for reckoning with a past of abuse and a path to a more peaceful future.
The UN has recognised the importance of transitional justice measures rhetorically, and to a more limited extent, practically. It has expressed this recognition through the creation of international and hybrid tribunals (such as those for the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone), support for truth commissions and memorials, backing for reparations programmes, and vetting of police and military structures. It has taken steps to recognise those most vulnerable to violence and abuse – children, women, indigenous people and other minorities – and to pay particular attention to their needs. Through the application of these measures, countries in every part of the world have started to emerge towards a more peaceful and hopeful future.
To address the universal desire for justice and the rule of law, the upcoming General Assembly debate should ask how the UN can deliver on its promises in more concrete ways, and how it can break down internal silos that prevent it from effectively addressing these critically important issues. It should also ask how key UN institutions, including the International Court of Justice, the Security Council and the General Assembly, can improve their response when the rule of law breaks down. These issues deserve serious debate, reflection, and action.
While there is much to be concerned about in the Middle East, some real progress has been made over the past 18 months: credible elections were held in Libya, an authentic transition is underway in Tunisia (with a true human rights hero serving as president), and a robust civil society advocating for justice and reform is growing across the region.
Much remains to be done, but the Arab Spring shows us that the call for the justice and the rule of law cannot be swept aside. It is time for the UN General Assembly to prove its commitment to the rule of law through concrete and comprehensive steps. The Mohamed Bouazizis of this world deserve no less.
David Tolbert is president of the International Center for Transitional Justice.