coltart1_CHANDAN KHANNAAFP via Getty Images_USprotest Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

How People Power Strengthens the Rule of Law

Dynamic grassroots movements are especially needed in authoritarian states where institutions are fundamentally broken. But even in established democracies, the recent failure of supposedly strong institutions to prevent the rule of law from being undermined has shown that there is no substitute for an active and organized citizenry.

HARARE – On a cold winter’s night in July 2016, thousands of people gathered inside and outside Rotten Row Magistrates’ Court in Harare to await the verdict in the Zimbabwean government’s case against Pastor Evan Mawarire, the leader of the #ThisFlag movement and a staunch opponent of then-President Robert Mugabe. When the magistrate eventually threw out the treason charges brought against Mawarire for peacefully rallying people against corruption, a street party broke out. It was an unexpected victory for the rule of law – won, at least in part, through collective non-violent action by ordinary people.

In its most basic form, the rule of law simply means that no one is above the law. Everyone is treated fairly and justly, and the government does not exercise its power arbitrarily. These principles lie at the heart of the ongoing protests against systemic racism and police brutality in the United States following the death of George Floyd. The rule of law is very different from rule by law, which characterizes many authoritarian states and, increasingly, some democracies as well.

Many argue, not unreasonably, that building robust institutions is essential to strengthening the rule of law. But what do you do when the institutions which are meant to uphold the rule of law are so hollowed out that they have become the primary tools for its subversion? The conventional focus on “building institutions” can leave ordinary people feeling disempowered, waiting patiently for the all-important institutions to reform, while they remain on the receiving end of oppression meted out by those very institutions. It can also lead to unhelpful interventions by well-meaning external actors, which inadvertently strengthen the authoritarian capabilities of captured institutions, rather than the rule of law.

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