Rule of Law

Eric Brahm

March 2005

Particularly since the end of the Cold War, the rule of law has increasingly been recognized as an important aspect of conflict resolution and post-conflict peace building. Similarly, the absence of the rule of law is often implicated as a source of conflict, at the very least serving to perpetuate instability. Broadly speaking, the term 'rule of law' refers to the presence of transparent, evenly applied rules and statutes. Obligations, penalties, and procedures are clear to everyone. Similarly, a system in which the rule of law reigns supreme is one in which the process through which law is created is open and accessible to all. These rules apply equally to everyone regardless of class, ethnicity, religion and the like as well as also binding government organs. In other words, no one is above the law. Therefore, an a-political, uncorrupted police force is an important component. What is more, an impartial judiciary, in which everyone has access to the system, is necessary to adjudicate disputes. In many societies with a history of conflict and authoritarianism, however, these institutions are either ineffectual or complicit in the conflict. This brief introduction touches on the significance of the rule of law for conflict resolution.

The Absence of the Rule of Law

A lack of rule of law in a country can be a source of conflict in a number of different respects. Perhaps most obviously, the application of law favoring particular groups is likely to generate resentment amongst those slighted. Absent a productive means of channeling grievances (which ideally would involve the judicial system), disadvantaged groups may resort to more violent tactics. Vigilantism may be one extreme response where few alternatives exist aside from taking the law into one's own hands.

Countries lacking the rule of law also often face economic disadvantage, which may become a source of conflict. Development experts often point to the importance of having clear statutes for the enforcement of contracts and the like as a precursor to attracting significant investment and consequently economic development.[1]

The Contribution of the Rule of Law

The rule of law brings order to society. A properly functioning judicial system and police force can provide stability. Constitutional reform and the establishment of new legal entities to deal with justice issues in the post-conflict phase are thus important components to a peacebuilding effort. Ultimately, some argue reconciliation depends in part on the restoration of the rule of law.[2] The international community has focused much attention on the means through which it can best assist countries construct a rule of law system.

Some argue that constructing the rule of law requires more than just building new institutions for a brighter road ahead. Rather, they counter that reckoning with war crimes and other past abuses is also central to constructing and maintaining the rule of law. In their view, holding perpetrators of past abuses accountable for their actions lays an important moral foundation for the future. Depending on the particular circumstances, this might involve one or more transitional justice mechanisms such as trials, international tribunals, truth commissions, or lustration measures. Compensation and restitution are also crucial in correcting past wrongs. Many transitional justice experts see uncovering the truth about past abuses as an important part of entrenching the rule of law. It involves a social transformation in which the rule of law becomes a widely shared value. De Greiff has theorized that the connection between truth and the rule of law is through the development of civic trust.[3] In some circumstances, there may be call to trade some degree of truth for the rule of law such as granting amnesties to forego prosecution.[4] Otherwise, nervous perpetrators that retain significant power may find it more beneficial to disrupt the peace process to protect their interests.

[1] "Building the Rule of Law." World Bank.; Rule of Law and Development site available here.

[2] Boraine, A. (1995). "Introduction". The Healing of a Nations A. Boraine and J. Levy. Cape Town, Justice in Transition: xiii-xxiv.; Crocker, D. A. (2000). "Truth Commissions, Transitional Justice, and Civil Society." Truth v. Justice: The Morality of Truth Commissions. R. I. Rotberg and D. Thompson. Princeton, Princeton University Press: 99-121. <>.

[3] de Greiff, P. (2006). "Truth-Telling and the Rule of Law." Telling the Truths: Truth Tellng and Peace Building in Post-Conflict Societies. T. A. Borer. Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame Press: 181-206. <>.

[4] Crocker, D. A. (1999). "Reckoning with Past Wrongs: a Normative Framework." Ethics & International Affairs. <>.

Use the following to cite this article:
Brahm, Eric. "Rule of Law." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: March 2005 <>.

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