Although it was a 19th century British jurist, Albert Venn Dicey, who coined the phrase “rule of law” the concept is an ancient one. The philosopher, Aristotle, said “Law should govern.”


“The rule of law is the underlying framework of rules and rights that make prosperous and fair societies possible. The rule of law is a system in which no one, including government, is above the law; where laws protect fundamental rights; and where justice is accessible to all.”


The history of liberty, as the American jurist Felix Frankfurter noted, is largely synonymous with the history of fidelity to the rule of law. Without just and binding laws, society devolves into authoritarianism or anarchy, sweeping aside the institutions that would otherwise protect ordinary people from capricious rulers or unreasoning mobs.

This fundamental principle is often overlooked. When Western leaders and journalists speak of brutal regimes, they talk of repression and of corruption and of the need to spread democracy. Yet democracy has never taken root where the rule of law is honored in the breech. Without it, there is no foundation for free and fair elections, much less basic human rights. There is also no bedrock on which to build a civil society. Denied equal justice before the law, ordinary people turn inward or, if outward, on each other. Even economic relations flounder in the absence of the rule of law.

One person who recognizes the rule of law’s centrality is Beatrice Mtetwa. Her arena is Zimbabwe but her message is universal: the rule of law is the foundation for the advancement of democracy, human rights, social harmony, and economic development.