The Rule of Law Is for All By Mark Walter

The Rule of Law is for All

From ILI’s Executive Director, Mark Walter

I grew up in the shadows of the last generation of Pittsburgh steelworkers, mostly hard-scrabble children of immigrants from across Europe and the great grandchildren of former slaves. The stories told to me were of labor strikes and hard-won prosperity and the built-in faith in the transparency and fairness of the law. The prosperity Pittsburgh once had eventually faded, and while years of adversity have finally given way to a new sort of success for the city, the indelible marks of the hopeful immigrant and minority communities who helped drive American economic rule of law remain. I left Pittsburgh long ago but still find shades and hues of my city and its people wherever I go.

Constitutions, legislation and government policies are typically held out as the tools of the rule of law, and they suggest the parallel importance of government and civil society as the keepers of the rule of law. A fair and transparent government, it is said, will lead to human development across a country and beyond. We sometimes forget that this big concept of the rule of law lives in each of us at our own individual place and level in the world. I have a unique appreciation for the impact of the rule of law made by real people and the practical impact it has on those people.

Fairness Is Foundational

I’m grateful to have spent my adult life traveling and working among the array of people across the world whose cultures, skin, languages, customs and livelihoods differ as wildly as the landscapes in which they live, but in whom I also find a comforting commonality. I first noticed it in, of all things, people’s hands. The hands of people who work hard reveal similar tapestries – maps of their labors. The hands in the picture here are those of an Indonesian nutmeg farmer and they reminded of my grandfather’s, who was a blast furnace worker in a steel mill. Different people from different worlds with different jobs and cultures, but they would understand each other’s stories. Hands like these are biographies of trial and error, success and failure. Earnestness, optimism and stoicism. These are the people with the highest hopes for fairness but often with the lowest expectations of it.
Not many lawyers get out in the world and talk to nutmeg farmers. I’ve been lucky that way. Across Africa, Southeast Asia, the Balkans, Ukraine and the Caucuses. All sorts of people with all kinds of roles in the market and government. Like the stories their hands tell, through my travels I’ve come to understand that the rule of law matters in ways that we don’t always notice, and it is common to people everywhere. But rather than mattering in the traditional grand arenas of government and judiciaries, it has significant impact in simple, practical ways like whether a trader will honor an agreement or the seed a farmer hybridized will be protected.

Transparency Is Fundamental

There are cabbage farmers in the highlands of Laos whose direct markets are across the Mekong in Thailand, making them international micro-businesses. They rush every morning, starting before dawn, to load the harvest on trucks to race to the bridge before it closes to truck traffic for the day. The reason the bridge closes? Wind, apparently…though the trucks may still cross for a small fee. The alternative to the fee, which if paid would reduce profit by half, is to wait on the side of the road till the bridge opens again, risking rotten produce.

There could be a legitimate public policy reason for the seemingly arbitrary rule. Or it could be an example of rent-seeking. It’s hard to know because of a lack of transparency. This is an instance where the rule of law may be the difference between eating or going hungry for families. The rule of law matters.

Stories like this repeat themselves hundreds of thousands of times around the world every day. A coffee farmer who wants to market her own brand but cannot trust intellectual property protection. An information technology company wanting to expand but cannot navigate internecine business registration rules. Anticompetitive agricultural traders fixing territories to take advantage of growers. Entrepreneurial app developers who can’t get funding because their software is not legally accepted as collateral. The near absence of access to commercial justice for small exporters. These are all rule of law issues that are rarely resolved at the top levels of policy making. Only by working both upward from the businesses themselves and downward from the rule-makers and developing pragmatic solutions that work in the circumstances which an economy has been dealt, can we achieve the kind of structure that people hope for and which can help them truly thrive.

A Framework For Fair Solutions

Law has held an awkward place in international development. The rule of law is qualitative and can seem unscientific. Unlike economics-driven solutions, legal solutions can be hard to quantify. Some rule of law solutions work well as multi-lateral treaties. Some are successful in a regionally harmonized form. Others can be effectively adopted from foreign jurisdictions. And still others must be hand-crafted in the places where they’re needed, using tools and methods derived from the literally thousands of years that people have been applying the rule of law to their commercial lives.

All of these approaches need to be used. We need to come back to the notion that has evolved over time, of a lex mercatoria – the law merchant. The notion that the rules come from the people who use them the most, making their lives less risky and more efficient. We also need an international legal community that fully recognizes its role in international development. As a mentor of mine likes to say “you can’t have the rule of law without lawyers.”

This is where The International Law Institute comes in. I am new to the organization and have tremendous respect for ILI’s nearly 70 years of tireless perseverance in making the rule of law work for real people around the world. I am honored to be a part of its future. That future will continue to be focused on people-centered law reform, sustainability and resilience, and an overarching dedication to human development.

Mark Walter is Executive Director and CEO of the International Law Institute, leading its global efforts to foster prosperity, human development and resilience through the rule of law. Mark has previously served as Managing Director for Trade for Nathan Associates in Washington, Technical Director in the APEC Secretariat in Singapore, Chief of Party for the USAID WTO Accession Project in Ethiopia, Senior Global Principal for DAI Inc. in Singapore, and Assistant Director of the Center for International Legal Education at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.
The author at a night market in Bangkok

Mark is an expert in international legal development, law and development methodologies, international commercial law, legal education, trade law and policy, and international development management. He is a member of the Board of Advisors of the Center for International Legal Education. Mark has led development projects in more than 30 countries on continents.

Mark earned B.A. from the University of Pittsburgh, an M.S. in Journalism from Virginia Commonwealth University, and a J.D. from the University of Pittsburgh.

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