In our context of governance, rule of law is an extensively debated but less-than-satisfactorily executed phenomenon. The selective application of law and the blatant use of discretion and elitism have marred efforts made for improving governance. Rule of law cannot be an outcome of isolated efforts but a byproduct of multiple factors and synergy between the state and public. In any society, the quality of governance is directly linked with respect for rule of law.
The ideals of rule of law are tailored by political parties through their manifestos. These can best be maintained with collaborated efforts of a dedicated leadership, professionally autonomous and accountable institutions and patriotic, law-abiding citizens. What is also important is equal application of law and zero tolerance for breaking it. Without volunteerism and public education, an ideal state of rule of law cannot be attained.
Assessing the state of rule of law requires meticulous probing. Is increase in the size of the belly of the criminal justice system the only option we have in this regard? Will mere legislation improve the rule of law? While we see extensive noise being made regarding enactment of laws, what is ignored is monitoring of their implementation and efficacy. To assess the implementation aspect, is a statistical approach appropriate? Why don’t we assess implementation of laws in the context of public satisfaction? Without educating the public about laws, can an ideal state of rule of law be achieved? The media’s role here is far from satisfactory as it readily broadcasts news about criminal acts, but hardly ever disseminates information about responsibilities and rights of citizens, making it difficult to maintain required standards of rule of law. Other ingredients needed to maintain these standards are transparency and accountability. Rule of law is not a one-way affair, but rather a two-way interaction between governments and citizens. It requires participation and consent of the latter.
Owing to cumbersome procedures, people often feel that public service institutions are not there to facilitate them. What is clearly needed is a simplification of procedures. Websites of public service departments, such as police, education, health and administration, can be instrumental in the facilitation process. However, one look at these tells us that little effort is made to keep them up-to-date and they often serve as a source of self-projection for those who administer the departments.
In a democratic state, accountability is an important pillar, which is closely linked to transparency. Good governance requires tiers of both horizontal and vertical accountability. Horizontal accountability encompasses being answerable to parliamentary and judicial bodies, while vertical accountability includes oversight by public bodies and mass media, entrusted to check the abuses committed by officials.
Our challenge is not one of legislation, but rather implementation of laws. In developing societies, reforms have often been driven by individuals. This means that when these individuals disappear from the scene, the effects of the reforms they have initiated often evaporate. Good governance requires lobbying and public empowerment; however, that is not possible without political ownership and the provision of incentives for both citizens and leaders. To assess the rule of law, appraisal of public opinion is vital. However, it is also important that this is done in an objective manner by the media and NGOs. Reforms are often opposed by those who have stakes in maintaining the status quo; hence those opposing reforms need to be incorporated in the communication process.
In 2002, UN member states committed to achieve the ideals set in the eight Millennium Development Goals. Achieving these goals, however, was directly linked with public cooperation and the rule of law. For instance, the eradication of polio was no more an exclusive concern of public health practitioners, but rather an issue of governance.
For public facilitation, several new initiatives — online filing of FIRs, model police stations, sending complaints via SMS and toll-free helplines, dispute resolution councils, the CPLC and reporting desks — have been introduced over the years. But has there been any evaluation of the efficacy of these initiatives? The Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) police did introduce a ‘performance audit’; however, third-party performance audits are also needed.
By merely inculcating ‘fear’, the ideals of rule of law cannot be attained. The public needs to be incorporated in the various tiers of governance as a stakeholder. This will help convince citizens regarding the benefits of compliance. In addition, institutions should be designed in a manner that secures a high currency for the rule of law. Lessons and subjects need to be incorporated in our curricula that focus on the importance of the rule of law and governance. Transparency also requires changes in the training modules of civil servants. The art of governance should not be confined to on-the-job learning. Pakistani public officials are often secretive with regard to their workings. There should be a realisation that protecting official information can compromise the public interest. The situation warrants that officials are trained so that they are able to differentiate between secrecy, privacy and the public interest. All this won’t be possible without political ownership, changes in laws and capacity-building of officials. In this regard, the passage of the Right to Services Act 2014 and the Right to Information Act 2013 in K-P are steps in the right direction.
The observance of traffic laws in any society truly reflects the state of governance. In Karachi, it is estimated that 2,500,000 vehicles are being driven by people without driving licences. According to a sample survey carried out by a former DIG of Motorway Police, during the verification process, out of 10,000 driving licences, 87 per cent turned out to be fakes.
The Charter of Democracy envisioned the establishment of a ‘Democracy Commission’. This needs practical manifestation. It will definitely instill more political ownership for the rule of law and improve the image of the state. Accountability warrants answerability and enforcement. In simple words, all those who are entrusted with power are answerable to the administrative, democratic and judicial apparatus, and in case of violations, the enforcement apparatus should take corrective and punitive actions. Attainment of the ideals of the rule of law requires setting of realistic goals, institutional autonomy and accountability.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 4th, 2015.