No one seems to have the definitive answer to what “Rule of Law” (ROL) actually means. There are all sorts of interpretations derived from interpretations of that term of art. I have found that, depending on one’s background, education, and life experiences, there are some variations of what we might define as “ROL”. After all, totalitarian states have been ruled by law, whether they might be draconian laws or laws never to be applied to the rulers. Here in the US I find that -more and more- many a lawyer and legal professional mention that laws are being applied to the “little” people, and that the powerful and rich get away with circumventing the law. Alas, the way I see it, and because we are flawed human beings, as long as we can talk about this and not end up in a torture chamber or dark cell, we are alright.
From a philosophical perspective, though, I am intrigued by what other societies’ perceptions are about the ROL. Below is the ROL pyramid that the Rule of Law Institute of Australia has developed:
As I perused the site, I came across The Rule of Law: Its State of Health in Australia, written by University of Sydney Professor Kevin Lindgren, where he points out in his introduction key concepts as to the meaning of the ROL:
The expression signifies not a legal rule, but more generally rule by “law” as distinct from rule by power, free of legal constraint, whether by a democratically elected government, a tyrant or otherwise. So, the ideal signifies that the institutions of the state, and in particular, the individuals and bodies that are invested with power by the state, should be subject to the law rather than above it.
There are narrow and broad meanings of the rule of law. According to the narrow meaning, the rule of law is not concerned with whether a law is good or bad, but only with whether the law is applied equally to all. According to the broader meaning, the ideal embraces human rights standards. On any reckoning, both the rule of law and human rights standards should be respected, observed and protected. The only question is the semantic one of whether we properly treat the former concept as encompassing the latter.
It is quite fitting to recall that these “human rights” that involve the broader meaning of the ROL were drafted by representatives of nations of different legal and cultural backgrounds and became the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly almost 70 years ago, on December 10th, 1948, as a common standard for the world.