We often hear the phrase ‘rule of law,’ but rarely discuss what it means and how it’s relevant to our collective efforts to earn our daily bread.
In the dictionary and therefore at its most basic, rule of law refers to “the principle that all people and institutions are subject to and accountable to law that is fairly applied and enforced; the principle of government by law.”
Breaking it down a little further, the World Justice Project states that “the rule of law is a system of rules and rights that enables fair and functioning societies” and goes on to define this system as “one in which the following four universal principles are upheld:
•The government and its officials and agents as well as individuals and private entities are accountable under the law.
•The laws are clear, publicized, stable, and just; are applied evenly; and protect fundamental rights, including the security of persons and property.
•The process by which the laws are enacted, administered, and enforced is accessible, fair, and efficient.
•Justice is delivered timely by competent, ethical, and independent representatives and neutrals who are of sufficient number, have adequate resources, and reflect the makeup of the communities they serve.”—(Source: www.worldjusticeproject.org)
Simply put, rule of law is meant to take human weakness out of enforcement, so that fair laws are made, and if broken, are enforced in a timely fashion ‘without fear or favour.’
Rule of law matters in the world of business because its presence increases predictability. If, as an investor in my country, I can predict that a certain course of action can be followed because it is what the law calls for, and that in the absence of that course of action I have recourse to the courts, it allows me to make a better-informed decision. Credible investors are encouraged when they see a strong commitment by a country to the rule of law, and that encouragement translates to increased investment, more jobs, and additional growth for that country.
Similarly, every citizen should be concerned about the presence or absence of a commitment to rule of law. How can you determine the presence and strength of that commitment? Here’s an easy test: if you can be confident that anyone who breaks a law will face punishment, regardless of whether they be a minister of government, a wealthy and well-connected person, or an ordinary citizen, then the country’s commitment to rule of law is solid. If, on the other hand, we find that laws broken by select individuals are not enforced, this becomes the basis for societal resentment, and weakens the credibility of law enforcement while breaking down the very structures that are necessary for society to function in a healthy way.
Think of this in the context of the recent and still unresolved passport scandal. Who has been held accountable under the law? What significant measures have been taken to refresh the tarnished credibility of our passports? Do the actions taken here indicate Belize’s firm commitment to rule of law? Aside from the national outrage, we have been judged internationally and found wanting in our enforcement. As a result, our citizens are encountering repercussions in the form of closer checks at other countries’ points of entry; we face requirements for fingerprints where none were needed before, and so on.
The weakness of our commitment to rule of law affects each of us as we try to be good citizens and adhere to our laws while others break them with impunity. Some of us will be content with merely becoming resentful and cynical while others will do worse. In business this means questioning whether or not your competitor will have an unfair advantage through breaking the law -think tax evasion, under-invoicing, contraband, or an ability to bypass or accelerate required processes. In the overall picture, the image a country has inevitably impacts its economic success, quality of life, and business and investor confidence. If Belize is to live up to her full potential, it is critical that we begin to think of our laws -and their enforcement- as imperatives for a fully functional democracy.