Magazine article UNESCO Courier

A World in Transition

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

A World in Transition

Article excerpt

In a number of countries emerging from authoritarian rule, a new quest for the rule of law is being encouraged by popular pressure and globalization

On the steppes of Central Asia in countries not so long ago under Stalinist rule, youths are being taught something unimaginable a decade ago: to defend their legal rights in the event of being stopped by police. After 17 years of dictatorship, Benin has a new constitutional court to which even the humblest citizen can appeal. Almost one third of its decisions so far have concerned human rights violations.

The passion for the principle, if not always the practice, of the rule of law is not coincidental. Much of the world has changed radically in recent years, moving from one-party authoritarian rule and command economics to multi-party politics or to free markets, and often both. Rule of law - a system in which, in theory and in practice, the law is binding on all persons as well as the government, a system which treats all equally - is seen as instrumental to the success of such transformation.

The present wave of transition started 20 years ago in Latin America with the dismantling of military rule and the establishment of democracy. This was followed by the collapse of communist regimes in the Soviet bloc, and the shift towards more democratic political systems and free market-oriented reform. Meanwhile, a number of states and territories in Africa and Asia, as a result of mass movements (Benin, Indonesia) or political evolution (Taiwan), are changing authoritarian or dictatorial regimes to more participatory and accountable systems.

Momentum for legal reform has come from growing popular pressure at national level, as well as from globalization, the catch-word not only for increasing trade and economic integration, but also for standards of civil conduct affecting ordinary people's basic rights. Membership in economic and political groupings and federations often brings international pressure for countries to protect basic rights through a rule of law.

While a set of laws in itself doesn't guarantee individuals rights - Nazi Germany and Stalinist Soviet Union had legal codes - a legal system equitably and tenaciously implemented is a cornerstone of democracy. …

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