The Individual’s Role in Defending the Rule of Law


28 Jun 2024

In any democracy, protecting the rule of law from the whims of illiberal leaders requires strong, capable, independent institutions. But behind the legal scaffolding on which democracy is built are those who work tirelessly, often at personal risk, to hold the powerful to account and ensure that the rule of law is observed. With the rule of law being challenged globally, the CEELI Institute is strengthening efforts to support individual judges, lawyers, activists, and journalists as they work to ensure citizens are governed equally and fairly by the law. At the Institute’s annual Rule of Law Symposium, held in Prague on June 21, the role of the “individual” provided the overarching theme for the day.

“Individual responsibility is the most important tool for change,” U.S. Ambassador Bijan Sabet observed in his welcoming remarks, paraphrasing the late Czech President Vaclav Havel. “We must take responsibility for our own actions and consequences. It’s not enough to hope that our values are preserved. The onus is on each of us, as individuals, to stand up for and protect the rule of law.”

 Prof. Adam Bodnar, the Polish Minister of Justice, emphasized in his keynote address that “defending the role of law simply requires courage and individual integrity.”

The need for individuals to stand up to authoritarian tendencies was critical in Poland. After the 2015 election of the Law and Justice party (PiS), Poland faced a series of rule-of-law crises as the PiS-led government interfered in the “composition, powers, administration, and functioning of the judicial branch,” according to the European Commission. Following the ouster of PiS in October 2023, Ministry of Justice Bodnar has worked to undo those measures and restore judicial independence.

Reflecting on that tumultuous period, Minister Bodnar said he’d been inspired by the legal community’s collective response, and recalled how lawyers and judges worked together to defend their own—such as Igor Tuleya, a lawyer and judge who was suspended after protesting judicial reforms. The Minister also described everyday heroes from the previous eight years—a shopkeeper from his hometown who would often stand alone in the city square, protesting legal maneuvers, and a man who traveled the country by bus organizing larger protests. “Those kinds of people can change reality,” Bodnar said. “They can change the way people think about [the importance of] the rule of law.”

Every year, CEELI’s Rule of Law Symposium welcomes some of the world’s leading experts in judicial independence, anti-corruption, and human rights. This year's symposium focused on the critical role individuals play in advancing the rule of law, and the participants exemplified the impact that committed individuals have in preventing rule-of-law backsliding and promoting progress.

In a panel on the role of the whistleblower in these efforts, Jóhannes Stefánsson, a former executive for Samherji, an Icelandic fishing company, described the harrowing journey he took from the C-suite to the witness stand. In 2019, Jóhannes, who had been director of operations for Samherji in Namibia, exposed one of the largest illegal fishing scandals in history, which involved his company paying millions of dollars in bribes to secure fishing rights. High-ranking politicians and business leaders in Namibia have since been arrested, and criminal investigations have been launched in dozens of countries.

“This is one of the clearest cases I've ever worked on demonstrating the levels of accountability one whistleblower can initiate,” recounted Anna Myers, the Executive Director of the Whistleblowing International Network and panel moderator.

For his efforts, Jóhannes, who joined the symposium from a secure location online, has been harassed, attacked, and even poisoned. “In Iceland, I held the status of suspect, even though I came forward,” he told participants. “In Namibia, I was a state witness. Namibia was more advanced in its ability to protect someone like me than Iceland.”

In another panel, judges representing three continents where CEELI works discussed the responsibilities, and the challenges, for judges working to preserve judicial independence in their jurisdictions. Justice Joymalya Bagchi, from the Calcutta High Court in India, said he was optimistic about the future of judicial integrity in his country, in part because of the individuals leading the effort. 

“Judges and lawyers are the brand ambassadors of a judiciary,” Justice Bagchi explained. “If judges can, by their own deeds and with courage, infuse a sense of traditional independence and constitutional supremacy, the judiciary [will be] preserved.”

Others were less optimistic. Justice Lebogang Modiba, from the Gauteng High Court in South Africa, noted that while individual judges in her country are advocating for a model of judicial independence separate from state control, “there's huge resistance from both the executive and the legislative branches to such a model.”

A third panel of international sanctions experts explored how to hold states, corporations, and individuals accountable when they seek to avoid sanctions. Speakers discussed transnational investigations, law enforcement training, cross-border legal frameworks, and the efforts of the European Union and U.S. Department of Justice in enforcing sanctions globally and role of individuals and civil society to support those efforts. 

“Every one of us – from judges to citizens – has a role to play in defending the rule of law,” said CEELI Executive Director Robert Strang. “Threats to judicial independence affect us all, but with individual courage and vigilance, this pillar of democracy can be preserved and strengthened.”

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