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Rule of law globally under assault

October 26, 2022

For the fifth year in a row, the rule of law has declined globally. That is the finding of the 2022 Rule of Law Index. It measures factors such as the protection of fundamental rights or constraints on government powers.

Lady Justice statue in Frankfurt
The concept 'rule of law' originates from 16th century Britain and is used worldwide to describe the basis of the legal culture of a countryImage: picture alliance

Ugandan journalist Remmy Bahati sounds badly shaken when she tells her family's story over the phone from the United States, where she currently lives.

It was in the evening of October 1, everyone was watching TV when suddenly armed men entered the family's home in Fort Portal in western Uganda. They were soldiers and plainclothes policemen and began to search the house. When they left in a minibus without license plates, they took her brother and cousin with them.  

Remmy learned about the abduction from her father. "We waited for 48 hours because the law says when someone is a suspect, they should be arraigned in court within 48 hours. But this was never done."

Remmy Bahati
Ugandan journalist Remmy Bahati currently lives and works in the United StatesImage: Privat

Bahati believes that the Ugandan government wanted to take revenge on her. "I reported on a number of stories that the government didn't like", such as a controversial pipeline project, she says. "And as a result, my brother and cousin were abducted from our family home."

What the journalist describes is an example of abuse of power, the violation of fundamental rights, and the lack of proper criminal justice. In short: It illustrates the absence of the rule of law in Uganda.

According to the latest Rule of Law Index published by the US non-governmental World Justice Project, Uganda ranks 128th of 140 countries surveyed. The lack of protection of fundamental rights and widespread corruption have dragged the country down in the index.

Since 2009, the World Justice Project has been measuring the development of the rule of law around the globe. The researchers base their findings on eight factors such as the protection of fundamental rights and constraints on government powers.

Image illustrating the eight categories measured for the Rule of Law Index
The Rule of Law Index measures eight categories

More than 154,000 households and 3,600 legal experts were surveyed for this year's index. How the rule of law can be defined is constantly debated among experts. The consensus is that citizens in a country with a strong rule of law — unlike Remmy Bahati's family in Uganda — can rely on laws being respected and enforced. 

Germany in sixth place

Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and The Netherlands can be considered exemplary in this respect. They rank in the top five in the 2022 Rule of Law Index. Germany is in sixth place. It did not receive top marks in the "Open Government" category, which refers to how accessible, fair, and efficient processes are by which the law is adopted, administered, adjudicated, and enforced.

Within the European Union, Hungary gets the lowest score on the Rule of Law Index. Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Cambodia, and Venezuela are ranked at the bottom of the worldwide list. That means that fundamental rights such as freedom of expression are not adequately protected and the government's actions are not sufficiently monitored.

Map showing ranking of Rule of Law Index 2022
Rule of law worldwide is in a slow but steady decline

China ranks number 131 in the category showing constraints of government power and even lower when it comes to protecting citizens' fundamental rights and freedoms. But overall, it ends up in the lower midfield, because it does comparatively well in fighting corruption and maintaining order and security.

'Authoritarian trends continue'

According to the World Justice Project, the rule of law has weakened in six out of ten countries in the past year. This is the fifth year in a row that the Rule of Law Index's global average score has fallen.

"Authoritarian trends that predate the pandemic continue to erode the rule of law," explains Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of the World Justice Project in a press release. "Checks on executive power are weakening and respect for human rights is falling."

Yet, the 2022 Index finds that rule of law has not deteriorated as much as the year before. Back then, there were far-reaching government restrictions on public life aimed at curbing the COVID pandemic which curtailed civic freedoms such as the freedom of movement.

Elizabeth Andersen speaking at a pulpit
WJP head Elizabeth Andersen is an American professor for international human rights law, international criminal law, and transitional justiceImage: Richard Theemling/World Justice Project

"We are emerging from the health crisis, but not the governance crisis," Andersen said. "Today, 4.4 billion people live in countries where the rule of law is weaker than it was last year." Rule of law was about fairness, she said. "That is, accountability, equal rights, and justice for all — and a less fair world is bound to be a more volatile one."

Fear remains

For journalist Remmy Bahati, the lack of rule of law in Uganda has had very personal consequences. Her brother and cousin have been released, she says, but the fear remains. 

"They released my brother without any charge after nine days of illegal detention", she says. "They let him go and the message he had for me was to stop tweeting about human rights and the East African crude oil pipeline."

She used to be very confident, Bahati says. But now she is afraid to express her opinion freely.

A controversial crude oil pipeline

This article was originally written in German.

Peter Hille Bonn 0051
Peter Hille Peter Hille is a multimedia reporter with a strong background in African affairs@peterhille