Rule of law drops globally, including in South Africa

Adherence to the rule of law is weakening globally, according to a survey released this week that pointed to a decline in 139 countries.

The annual WJP Rule of Law Index 2021 is published by the World Justice Project (WJP).

“Rule of law is the very foundation of communities of justice, opportunity and peace. Reinforcing that foundation should be a top priority for the coming period of recovery from the pandemic,” says WJP co-founder and chief executive Bill Neukom. 

South Africa ranked 52 on the list, keeping the spot it had the previous year, because its overall rule of law score decreased by less than 1%. In 2018, the country came in at 44th out of the 113 countries surveyed.

Denmark, Norway, and Finland were the top three performers overall, while Cambodia and Venezuela remained at the bottom.

Using national surveys of more than 138 000 households and 4 200 legal practitioners and other experts around the world, the index measures countries’ performance across eight factors: constraints on government powers, absence of corruption, open government, fundamental rights, order and security, regulatory enforcement, civil justice and criminal justice. 

Of 33 countries surveyed in the sub-Saharan Africa region, South Africa ranked fifth. 

Sub-Saharan Africa’s top performer in the index was Rwanda — which was 42nd out of 139 countries globally — followed by Namibia and Mauritius. 

South Africa’s history of how officials funnel state-owned money into their own pockets, resulting in investigations by the Hawks and Special Investigating Unit, might explain the country’s global rank of 65th out of 139 countries on corruption. 

Order and security continue to undermine South Africa’s global status — it ranks 118th, down from 2019 when it was 106th. A geat contributor to its poor standing on order and security this year could be the July riots in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, when businesses were vandalised and looted. 

Worldwide, South Africa ranks 32nd for open government, 40th for constraints on government powers, 47th for civil justice and 53rd for criminal justice. 

But the country retains the top spot for open government in the sub-Saharan region, and second for fundamental rights. 

Globally, the index shows more countries declined than improved in overall rule of law performance for the fourth consecutive year.

The report said 74.2% of the 139 countries surveyed experienced declines in their rule of law performance — accounting for 84.7% of the global population, or roughly 6.5-billion people. 

“The declines were widespread and seen in all corners of the world. For the second year in a row, in every region, a majority of countries slipped backwards or remained unchanged in their overall rule of law performance,” the WJP said.

The country with the biggest decline in rule of law in the past year was Belarus, with -7.5%. 
Belarus made headlines in 2020 when violent protests erupted after disputed presidential elections, which saw President Alexander Lukashenko retain his hold on power since 1994. More recently Belarussian authorities announced a ban on some social media channels, claiming them to be “extremist”. Offenders risk being jailed for up to seven years.

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Eunice Stoltz
Eunice Stoltz is a junior daily news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She was previously a freelance journalist and a broadcaster at Maroela Media and Smile90.4FM.

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