What is the Rule of Law?

Page

The rule of law is a contested concept. Some love it and some love to hate it. Critics argue that the rule of law has been co-opted by anti-democratic leaders to lend legitimacy to what are otherwise reprehensible regimes. For them, “the rule of law” is as meaningless as it is vague.

We disagree.

The rule of law is a powerful normative concept not despite its many meanings but precisely because of them. We believe the rule of law is a rare tent that can unite people from across the political spectrum around the common pursuit of a more just society premised on the rule of law. Part of RULE OF LAW NOW’s mandate is to explain what the rule of law is, how and why people disagree over its content, and what it looks like in practice, on the ground in countries with different political systems around the world.

If you are interested in learning more about the rule of law, its origins, and its debates, then we recommend you peruse the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy‘s entry on The Rule of Law. It includes a comprehensive treatment of the concept in its historical and modern contexts and provides a list for further reading.

Additional Resources

The following organizations offer rule of law-themed information that you may find helpful (listed in alphabetical order):

  • American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative, website
  • Arab Center for the Development of the Rule of Law and Integrity, website
  • Bringham Centre for the Rule of Law, website
  • Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, website
  • European Union Commission, website
  • Institute for International Law and Human Rights, website
  • International Development Law Organization (IDLO), website
  • Irish Rule of Law International, website
  • Lexis Nexis, Rule of Law Project, website
  • National Endowment for Democracy, website
  • Open Society Foundation, Rule of Law program, website
  • Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Rule of Law program, website
  • United Nations, website
  • United States Institute of Peace, website
  • World Bank, website
  • World Justice Project, website
Suggested Readings

Here is a bibliography with some helpful sources on the rule of law and related topics. Kindly note that listing these materials on our website does not necessarily constitute an endorsement by HLS Students for the Rule of Law of the ideas expressed in them.

  • Constitutionalism and the rule of law: bridging idealism and realism, Maurice Adams et al (eds.), Cambridge University Press, 2017.
  • The international rule of law movement: a crisis of legitimacy and the way forward, David Marshall (ed.), Signature Book Printing, 2014.  
  • Sherif A. Elgebeily, The rule of law in the United Nations Security Council decision-making process, Routledge, 2017.
  • The rule of law in the 21st century: a worldwide perspective, Robert A. Sustein, Justice Richard J Goldstone (eds.), Gomer Press, 2015.
  • Matthew Stephenson, A Trojan Horse Behind Chinese Walls?: Problems and Prospects of U.S.-Sponsored “Rule of Law” Reform Projects in the People’s Republic of China, 18 UCLA PACIFIC BASIN LAW JOURNAL 64 (2000).  (updated and reprinted in Thomas Carothers ed., PROMOTING THE RULE OF LAW ABROAD: IN SEARCH OF KNOWLEDGE (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2006)).
  • The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Constitutional Law, Rosenfeld and Sajo (eds.), Oxford University Press, 2012.
  • Richard Goldstone, Promoting the Rule of Law: A Practitioner’s Guide to Key Issues and Developments, Leila Mooney (ed.), ABA Section of International Law, 2013.
  • John Philiph Reid, Rule of Law: The Jurisprudence of Liberty in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, Northern Illinois University Press, 2004.
  • Paul Gowder, The Rule of Law in Real World, Cambridge University Press, 2016.
  • Rachel Kleinfeld, Advancing the Rule of Law Abroad: Next Generation Reform, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2012.
  • Jørgen Møller and Svend-Erik Skaaning, The Rule of Law: Definitions, Measures, Patterns and Causes, Palgrave MacMillan, 2014.
  • Brian Z. Tamanaha, On the Rule of Law: History, Politics, Theory, Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • Tom Bingham, The Rule of Law,  Penguin books, 2010.