‘A Crisis For Human Rights’: New Index Reveals Global Fall in Basic Justice


Protesters in Manila wear masks depicting victims of extra-judicial killings. The Philippines dropped the most places in the new Rule of Law Index. — AFP

More than 70 of 113 countries surveyed for latest Rule of Law Index report their fundamental human rights are being eroded.

FUNDAMENTAL human rights are reported to have diminished in almost two-thirds of the 113 countries surveyed for the 2018 Rule of Law Index, amid concerns over a worldwide surge in authoritarian nationalism and a retreat from international legal obligations.

“All signs point to a crisis not just for human rights, but for the human rights movement,” said Professor Samuel Moyn of Yale University. “Within many nations, these fundamental rights are falling prey to the backlash against a globalising economy in which the rich are winning. But human rights movements have not historically set out to name or shame inequality.”

Rule of law scores have declined in 38 countries since 2016

Guardian graphic. Source: World Justice Project

The 2018 index, published by the World Justice Project (WJP), gathers data from more than 110,000 households and 3,000 experts to compare their experiences of legal systems worldwide, by calculating weighted scores across eight separate categories. While Venezuela retains its unwanted position at the bottom of the index – just behind Cambodia and Afghanistan – the Philippines is this year’s biggest faller, dropping 18 places to 88th in the table, on top of a slump of nine places in the 2016 survey.

President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration has put a “palpable strain upon established countervailing institutions of society”, according to Jose Luis Martin Gascon, chairman of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights. He said there had been a “chilling effect” on the country’s opposition in the wake of attacks against personalities who have criticised Duterte’s policies.

Non-discrimination, freedom of expression and religion, the right to privacy and workers’ rights were all taken into account in calculating observance of people’s fundamental rights across the world. Respondents’ belief in the protections afforded by such rights has dropped in 71 of the 113 countries surveyed for the latest index.

“The WJP’s findings provide worrying confirmation that we live in very dangerous times for the rule of law and human rights,” said Murray Hunt, director of the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law.

“The worldwide resurgence of populism, authoritarian nationalism and the general retreat from international legal obligations are trends which, if not checked, pose an existential threat to the rule of law. Preventing violations of the rule of law and human rights is always better than curing them after the event,” Hunt said.

While the Nordic trio of Denmark, Norway and Finland again rank first to third in the index, the United Kingdom has dropped out of the top 10 to 11th place overall. In all, 38 countries have seen their overall Rule of Law score diminish since the last index.

Of the 35 countries classified as “high-income” in the report, the United States ranks 19th, just ahead of Korea and behind France. But in the fundamental rightscategory, the US falls five places to 26th, with worsening levels of discrimination and due process of law plus decreased guarantees of the right to life all contributing to this downward trajectory.

Around the world, criminal justice systems have again performed poorly. Few countries were considered to have a penal system that is effective in reducing criminal behaviour, with only four scoring 0.80 or above in this category (on the rating scale of 0–1). An equal number scored below 0.10.

“We are witnessing a global deterioration in fundamental aspects of the rule of law,” said William H Neukom, the WJP’s founder.

Anti-government protesters in Caracas, named the most violent city in the world in 2017. — AP

Venezuela (113th out of 113)

Venezuela remains rooted to the bottom of the Rule Of Law Index, with its scores in all aspects of criminal justice especially low. In a country where the economy no longer functions and citizens have surrendered to hyperinflation – with an annualised rate of nearly 2,000% – the complete collapse of the rule of law may perpetuate a crisis that has already impoverished more than a third of the country’s households.

Despite the government’s iron fist, street crime continued to grow in what is the most homicidal country in Latin America and the Caribbean. While the interior ministry reported 53 people a day were killed last year, the independent Venezuelan Observatory for Violence estimated that 26,616 murders occurred (a daily average of 73).

The capital, Caracas, was again named the most violent city in the world last year, with an estimated homicide rate of 130 per 100,000 inhabitants. Venezuela’s prison system is also one of the most violent in the world, with 6,472 murders registered between 1999 and 2014.

According to Transparency International, it is also the most corrupt country in Latin America: military leaders have long used their powers over food imports for personal enrichment, skimming millions in public funds. State jobs and benefits were used to pressure public workers to support the government during elections; according to human rights advocates, those who didn’t vote in favour of President Nicolás Maduro’s new congress were barred from public employment.

Over the past year – especially during a wave of protests against Maduro that lasted four months – security forces detained 5,475 people, more than 100 of whom remain behind bars, according to legal aid group Foro Penal.
Mariana Zuñiga

A kitchen inside a Swedish high-security prison. Sweden ranks highly for the effectiveness of its correctional system. Photograph: Jonathan. — AFP

Scandinavia (1st to 4th)

Fans of Nordic noir crime fiction may be struck by the irony that Scandinavian countries again top the WJP’s Rule Of Law Index.

This part of the world apparently has little need for crusading investigative reporters, depressive policemen or detectives in chunky sweaters, with Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland jostling for top spot in each of the eight categorieswhich together assess the ease with which countries’ justice systems tackle iniquity and wrongdoing.

Denmark again heads the overall ranking, thanks to its strong constraints on ruling politicians, the absence of corruption, strong fundamental freedoms and low civil strife. The country gets a perfect score for protecting its people from armed conflict and terrorism – but ranks least well (significantly below its Nordic neighbours) in the effectiveness of its correctional system. To score high on this measure, as Sweden does, prisons and probation services need to be secure, respect prisoners’ rights, and be effective in preventing reoffending, the WJP says.

Denmark is closely followed by Norway, Finland and Sweden. Iceland, the other member of the Nordic quintet, does not feature in the survey – which is perhaps a pity; the revelation in the Panama Papers two years ago that the country’s president was sheltering money offshore might offer some support for the myths of Nordic noir.

Grenada’s scores on criminal justice, open government and fundamental rights saw sharp declines.

Grenada (36th)

Grenada, an independent Caribbean country consisting of Grenada and six smaller islands, has seen the largest overall drop (by a score of –0.05) of the 113 countries in this year’s index, with particularly sharp declines in the areas of criminal justice, open government and fundamental rights.

“This may be the downside of a recent referendum on constitutional reform which proposed transformative amendments on human rights and access to justice,” said Lady Anande Trotman-Joseph, president of the Grenada Bar Association. “It failed to pass, in part because the process got mired in anti-gender orientation and administrative distraction.”

Last November, Grenadians voted by an almost three-to-one margin against constitutional reform legislation that included a “promotion of gay marriage” bill. As in the vast majority of Caribbean countries, male homosexuality is illegal here (punishable by up to 10 years in prison) and gay marriage is not recognised.

“There has also been an uptick in reported cases of drug activity,” said Joseph, “while the state of older records kept at court registries may be another issue that impacted on the responses.”

Grenada has at least made significant strides in its integrity and corruption efforts. Its Integrity Commission – “one of the more active ones in the Caribbean region”, according to Joseph – has implemented the Anti-Corruption Roundtable: a national mechanism tasked with monitoring white collar and financial crimes, procurement and the performance and discipline of public officers.

Activists burn a caricature of Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte as a gun-toting dinosaur. — AFP

Philippines (88th)

It’s no surprise that the Philippines recorded the biggest year-on-year fall in the index – dropping 18 places – given the notoriety of President Rodrigo Duterte and his brutal anti-drug campaign, which has so far killed thousands of Filipinos.

Last year was especially bloody because of months-long clashes between the military and Islamic State-linked armed groups. Martial law was declared in the island of Mindanao as the military repelled attempts to establish an Islamic caliphate in Marawi City; at the height of the clashes, nearly 400,000 civilians were displaced.

Gascon talked of a “chilling effect” on the country’s opposition in the wake of attacks against personalities who have criticised Duterte’s policies, including the arrest of key government critic Senator Leila de Lima and threats of impeachment against the country’s supreme court chief justice and its ombudsman. Duterte, who has been in power for 18 months, has also threatened to abolish Gascon’s office.

The Philippines ranks among the the worst performers in a region – East Asia and Pacific – where more than two-thirds of countries experienced a decrease in their overall rule of law score. Thailand and Vietnam also dropped significantly (seven places each), while Cambodia remains bottom of the region, and second bottom overall after Venezuela.

Activists from Nepal’s Rastriya Prajatantra Party protest after being barred from entering a local election. — EPA

Nepal (58th)

Nepal is the leading South Asian country on the index, climbing five places to keep ahead of fast-rising Sri Lanka (59th) and India (62nd). It is the second in the world among low-income countries, after Senegal (49th).

Analysts point to last year’s elections as one reason for the rise: local elections were held for the first time in 20 years, beginning the process of devolution promised in the 2015 constitution. Provincial and general elections followed, raising hopes of an end to the chronic political instability that has seen 26 governments come and go in the past 27 years.

However, some legal and political experts say the elections only highlighted how far Nepal still has to go strengthen the rule of law. At least 77 improvised explosive devices were planted during the general election campaign, injuring 26 people.

Political parties were accused of fielding notorious gangsters as candidates and sinking vast amounts of cash into their election campaigns, often with the support of business people keen to secure favours after the election.

“It is not rule of law, but rule by law,” said Om Prakash Aryal, a prominent Nepali lawyer. “It is rule for the sake of interest groups, not the common good. Corrupt people are controlling the state apparatus; political leaders are close to the business mafia and work for their interests. But civil society is strong – somehow it may stop the situation from getting worse.”

Ghana is ranked highest of the 18 sub-Saharan countries on the index, and in 43rd place globally.

Sub-Saharan Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa is not quite the worst performing region for rule of law – beaten narrowly to the bottom spot by South Asia – but this may be little cause for celebration.

The WJP’s researchers were unable to gather data on a majority of countries – including those where indicators are likely to be the worst, such as South Sudan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and the Central African Republic.

Of the 18 sub-Saharan countries that were ranked, Ghana is the region’s best performer, supplanting South Africa from 2016 and taking 43rd place globally. While Burkina Faso (70th) and Kenya (95th) have also made significant gains in the global rankings, the latter’s low overall ranking may anger its leaders as much as it encourages the many civil society actors who are fighting to preserve respect for judicial process and legal rights there.

In terms of individual categories, Ethiopia scores very poorly for open government while South Africa does well. Zimbabwe is at the bottom of the list for fundamental human rights, though there will be hopes this can be improved now the rule of Robert Mugabe is over. Nigeria, hit by multiple insurgencies and conflicts, sits just above Afghanistan on order and security, three from the bottom of the list; Botswana, peaceful and stable, scores well here.

If the lack of data for much of the continent is set asie, some more positive trends are visible. Could Africa be starting to win the battle against corruption? Four countries in sub-Saharan Africa showed improvements in tackling corruption, while none worsened.

A recent report on HMP Liverpool highlighted ‘the worst conditions inspectors had ever seen’. — Getty Images

United Kingdom (11th)

The UK fell out of the top 10 in this year’s index, with its score for the accessibility and affordability of civil justice notably lower than comparable countries such as Denmark and Germany, and much closer to the United States.

The UK’s biggest decline is in the effectiveness of its correctional system, recorded at 0.53 ­– a figure lower than in the US (0.58). This may not come as a surprise given the ongoing prisons crisis and a series of highly critical inspection reports, such as the recent report on HMP Liverpool which highlighted “the worst conditions inspectors had ever seen”.

The index also records reductions in the UK’s right to information and effectiveness of complaint mechanisms ratings, compared to 2016, and a worsening in the government’s respect for private property rights.

A high point is the UK’s open government ranking (eighth overall), while all scores in the regulatory enforcement category exceed the average for high-income countries.

The US performs poorly on due process of law and, in particular, protection of the rights of the accused. — Getty Images

United States (19th)

The checks and balances on the American government have faced stern tests over the past year, with all aspects of the index’s constraints on government powers category showing a downward trend for the US.

The biggest fall was for the integrity of electoral process and whether government officials are appointed using the correct rules and procedures. The US’s score of 0.76 in this category compares very unfavourably with 0.95 in Germany.

The report also suggests Americans generally believe they are not going to be treated fairly where crime is concerned, with the US performing poorly on due process of law and, in particular, protection of the rights of the accused.

Equal treatment and the absence of discrimination was a particular problem for the US in the fundamental rights category; its score of 0.50 is well below the average for high-income countries, with France and the UK scoring 0.61 and 0.71 respectively.

But perhaps a surprising high point came in the absence of corruption category, where the index suggests a decreasing number of officials use public office for private gain.

A vigil in front of the Polish Supreme Court protests a new bill to change the judicial system. — AFP

Poland (25th)

While Turkey (101st), Uzbekistan (91st) and Russia (89th) sit at the bottom of the Eastern Europe and Asia region, it is Poland and Georgia whose scores have dropped most precipitously of all European countries in the latest Rule of Law Index.

In Poland, concerns centre on the ruling Law and Justice party’s rapid capture of democratic institutions in recent years – in particular, the overt attempt by politicians to assert direct control over the judiciary.


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