Organisation Internationale de Droit du Développement

‘Without rule of law, human rights are paper promises.’

‘Human rights and rule of law have to go hand in hand. Without rule of law, human rights are paper promises and without human rights, rule of law becomes rule by law and a system for repression,’ IDLO’s Director General, Irene Khan, told a panel during a UN High Level Debate on ‘Human Rights at the Centre of the Global Agenda’.

Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch and moderator of the panel, opened the session on ‘Building the foundations for human rights – governance, the rule of law and access to justice’, putting it to the panel that ‘the question of justice, access to justice, governance and rule of law is best understood in three parts – access to domestic justice, access to international justice, and the role of international tribunals.’ He went on to give examples, where domestic justice was not being delivered and citizens were being denied access to justice, or where national governments were not participating in or cooperating with international mechanisms.

Beginning by asking what we mean when we say rule of law, Irene Khan explained that from her experience, ‘the term rule of law is often more acceptable than the term human rights in many situations because there is no clear definition of what rule of law stands for. It can mean a lot of things to a lot of people…. The rule of law is the best strategy for protecting human rights but providing we understand what we mean.’  

‘Laws and institutions by themselves do not protect, laws can be enablers or barriers to human rights, we know of laws that discriminate, we know of institutions that can be mismanaged, can be corrupt, can be manipulated…. When that happens, that’s rule by law not rule of law,’ she continued.

Moving on to explore the importance of rule of law and human rights to sustainable development, she added that ‘most of us recognize the importance of rule of law when it comes to economic development because, of course, it provides certainty for business. What needs to be understood is the importance of rule of law when it comes to promoting equality, equal access, equal opportunity which are all fundamental to sustainable development, and how important it is to fighting inequality, which, of course, is at the heart of the human rights debate.’

Explaining the significance of access to justice for rule of law, Ms. Khan elaborated that ‘the rule of law is enabled through access to justice. The rule of law is about the state and institutions, access to justice is about people.’

‘I can’t imagine the separation of rule of law, human rights and sustainable development,’ she concluded. ‘If you separate them, you are not going to get sustainable development, it’s as simple as that.’

Other panelists included Judge Silvia Fernandez de Gurmendi, President of the ICC, Jacqueline Moudeina, lead lawyer for the victims of Hissene Habre regime in Chad, and Harkristuti Harkrisnowo, Professor of Criminal Law at the University of London.

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Irene Khan at UN High Level Debate on Human Rights