A UN declaration by world leaders on Monday that the rule of law is essential to promoting peace, justice and prosperity fell far short of the ambitious action plan sought by the United Nations’ chief and disappointed activists.
The UN General Assembly meeting in New York adopted a 42-point statement affirming its support for a range of legal issues affecting human rights, peace and international security. While UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon called it “a milestone” that will help in meeting challenges ahead, it lacked the program of action, specific goals and key measurements for achieving them that he had sought.
Instead the six-page document was replete with generalities that papered over a deep rift between some developing countries that complain of an inequality of power on the international stage and a double standard, where they say the Western world tries to impose its legal norms on other nations.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad put this view bluntly, telling the rule of law session that states should not yield to rules imposed "by bullying countries."
The only concrete action promised in the UN document was work “to develop further the linkages between rule of law … and peace and security, human rights and development“ in time for the next annual meeting. Otherwise, it used words such as states “recognize” “commit”, “emphasize” and “reaffirm” in describing members’ support for a range of legal issues such as women’s rights to legal assistance and freedom from violence and no impunity for genocide.
“It is an unfortunate, missed opportunity,” said James Goldston, executive director of the justice program at the Open Society Foundations in New York, one of many non-governmental organizations that worked with the UN in developing the declaration.
“What we have is a document that doesn’t say very much. Given the varying priorities of states and so many things on the agenda, it was difficult to get anything more than the lowest common denominator,” he said.
David Tolbert, president of the International Center for Transitional Justice, welcomed the common text but similarly said it was weakened by the “very broad kitchen sink approach.”
“I would have preferred a more focused discussion on what we mean by the rule of law and how the UN and member states can clearly advance it,” he said.