The COVID-19 pandemic put significant pressure on the rule of law around the world. As pandemic conditions ease, we would hope to see the rule of law rebound. Unfortunately, new data reveal persistent challenges in a majority of countries, laying bare a global rule of law crisis.
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, the rapid flow of emergency aid created opportunities for fraud and corruption, while governments imposed public health measures that curtailed free assembly and association, closed courts, and ground justice systems to a halt. In addition, the pandemic exposed and exacerbated long-standing systemic inequalities. Against this backdrop, the annual World Justice Project (WJP) Rule of Law Index registered declining rule of law in 74% of countries in 2021, the first report issued during the pandemic. (We serve as Executive Director of WJP and Co-Director of the WJP Rule of Law Index, respectively.)
The Index draws on surveys of more than 154,000 households and 3600 legal practitioners and experts in order to score and rank countries on eight factors of the rule of law: Constraints on Government Powers, Absence of Corruption, Open Government, Fundamental Rights, Order and Security, Regulatory Enforcement, Civil Justice, and Criminal Justice. At the height of the pandemic, a majority of countries declined in each of these factors, with the exception of Order and Security. The most significant pandemic-era declines were seen in Index factors measuring constraints on government power; timeliness of civil, criminal, and administrative justice; civic space; and absence of discrimination. Between 2020 and 2021, scores in these areas fell in 70%, 94%, 82%, and 67% of countries, respectively.
This week, the World Justice Project releases the 2022 WJP Rule of Law Index. Based on surveys conducted between February and June 2022, the Index might be expected to reveal a post-pandemic rule of law recovery. Unfortunately, the new data show persistent global negative trends, with declining rule of law in 61% of countries. The rule of law declines were smaller and less widespread than during the pandemic year. Still, two-thirds of the countries with declining scores in 2021 saw further backsliding in 2022. Again, constraints on government powers, timeliness of justice, civic space, and discrimination declined in a majority of countries.
Multi-Year Trends Reflect Rising Authoritarianism
The 2022 Index data underscore that in many jurisdictions, recent negative rule of law trends predate the health crisis and will likely persist beyond it, part of a longer-term global rise in authoritarianism. Since 2015, the Index registered a decline in rule of law scores by an average of 2.6% globally, falling in 64% of countries studied. Deterioration over this period has been particularly marked in the Index factors measuring Constraints on Government Powers and Fundamental Rights, declining in 68% and 76% of countries, respectively. Over this same seven-year period, 81% of countries studied saw declines in the specific indicator measuring freedom of opinion and expression; and 85% of countries experienced deteriorating freedom of assembly and association. Since 2015, the Index measure of whether transitions of power are lawful has declined in two-thirds of countries. Improving pandemic conditions have provided little relief on the rule of law front; rather, the end of the health crisis simply confirms a more persistent governance crisis.
The United States Faces Persistent Challenges
The United States saw its Index score improve for the first time in six years, but it too has a ways to go to recover lost ground. Ranked 26th out of the 140 countries studied, the United States increased its score in each of the eight Index factors and 1.8% overall. But even with these gains, its rule of law score has fallen 3% since 2015.
In recent years, the United States has experienced the most significant decline in the Index factor for Constraints on Government Powers. This factor measures the checks on executive power from the legislature, judiciary, independent audit agencies, civil society, and the media, as well as the extent to which official misconduct is sanctioned and transitions of power are conducted lawfully. Since 2015, the U.S. overall score for such checks and balances dropped by 9.4%, with an even sharper deterioration in the specific indicators for limits imposed by the legislature (-17.6%), judiciary (-12.2%), and civil society and media (-13.5%). Over this same period, the score for the extent to which official misconduct is sanctioned declined by 12.6% and for lawful transitions of power by 10.9%. Only the indicator for checks by independent audit agencies improved (by 19.4%).
In addition, the United States has over the past seven years experienced persistently low and declining scores on the Index measures of discrimination (ranking 103rd globally in 2022), accessibility and affordability of the civil justice system (115th), discrimination in the civil justice system (121st), and impartiality of the criminal justice system (106th). In sum, these data underscore that rule of law progress is slow, and in the United States as elsewhere, it will take a sustained and concerted effort to recover fully from recent negative trends and address these other longstanding systemic weaknesses in its justice system.
Former Soviet States Take Divergent Paths
Notwithstanding this sobering picture, the WJP Index does reveal some encouraging patterns. Significantly, the 2022 Index underscores the importance of rule of law standards and accountability and the European Union’s (EU’s) rule of law norm-setting, in particular. Eight of the top ten performers are EU member states, and two of the most improved states (Kosovo and Moldova) are motivated applicants for EU membership. Although Hungary continues to defy EU pressure and saw its Index score fall further this year, EU aid conditionality may be resonating in Poland, where the Index registered its first gain of the past seven years.
Out of 102 countries that WJP has tracked since 2015, the top ten improvers include five former Soviet states (Moldova, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Estonia, and Ukraine), contrasting markedly with Russia, which deteriorated 5.6% over the same period. These divergent paths reflect quite different visions for the future, playing out with devastating consequences for Ukraine currently. Estonia is securely anchored in the European Union, breaking into the top ten in the Index rankings this year, and Moldova and Ukraine have been motivated by similar western-oriented ambitions. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are not candidates for EU membership and have further to travel to shake off an authoritarian past, but both have consistently improved their Index scores as they pursue intentional liberalization strategies to attract foreign investment.
As concerning as the global rule of law trends are, the data from these states remind us that there is nothing inevitable about rising authoritarianism. Setting standards, supporting reformers, and measuring and tracking progress are critical strategies that can yield results. The WJP Rule of Law Index provides a robust evidence base for such efforts, and to that end, we invite you to probe and use the data at worldjusticeproject.org/index.