Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, thank you for inviting me to participate in this impressive gathering of dignitaries and experts from around the world to discuss a topic of profound importance: the rule of law and its role in a successful democratic and modern society.
As we have seen in countries transitioning to democracy in this region and around the world, the overall health of any democratic society can be measured by the extent to which it is governed by its own laws. People – citizens and noncitizens – must know that they have access to public justice when they believe they have been wronged. Those suspected of crimes must believe that a system of laws is in place which ensures fair treatment and fair trials. Anyone who considers committing a crime must know that he will likely be caught and punished regardless of whether he is an ordinary citizen, a wealthy businessman, a law enforcement official, or a high government official. And businesses must know that they operate in a relatively stable environment, that their legitimate contracts will be honored, and that reasonable regulations will be fairly enforced by administrative bodies. All of these expectations relate directly to the rule of law and should be met in modern democratic societies.
Of course, when we speak of the rule of law, we speak of an ideal. No country has ever had a perfect justice system. All nations have ample room for improvement, so international conferences like this one provide an excellent venue for the sharing of experience. Law after all is not a science, it’s a human endeavor, fraught with human frailty, but one that stands alone as a democratic society’s shield against the potential tyranny of a powerful government, huge corporations, terrorists groups, organized criminals, and of course ordinary criminals too.
The rule of law begins with a strong constitution defining and limiting the powers of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches and establishing a strict separation of powers between them. The perfect balance of the separation of powers is easy to describe in words but difficult to maintain in practice. In a healthy democracy, it is the job of an independent judiciary and ultimately a constitutional or supreme court to assure that this proper balance is maintained.
The lack of independent courts, or even the perception that courts are not free, undermines faith in the justice system. If people perceive that they have unequal access to the courts, or that some crimes are pursued aggressively while others appear to be ignored or, even worse, covered up, people will conclude that the justice system is unfair and politicized, and this conclusion will erode their faith in the institutions whose primary function is to guarantee their rights. Over time, even the perception that a judiciary is not acting independently will diminish the willingness of society as a whole to respect the law and to act in accordance with the established rules.
The rule of law is also essential to economic development, especially within the global context. Courts must reliably settle disputes and uphold contract obligations fairly and consistently; otherwise, entrepreneurs and foreign investors will look to another market, not wanting their profits and their hard work to be stolen by rivals or by corrupt officials. Around the world, potential investors often hesitate when they hear stories of foreign businesses that have encountered serious problems stemming from the inconsistent application of the law.
In a democracy, freedom of speech, of religion, and press, and the protection of minority rights also must be the subject of clear legal protections and constant renewal.
Let me focus briefly on the American experience with one of these freedoms, the freedom of expression.
Most observers – indeed many Americans – believe that the United States was born with perfect freedom of speech on our independence day July 4, 1776. But in fact, this is not the case: this is a right for which we had to struggle, and for which we continue to struggle. We have found no simple or permanent answers, but we do have some enduring, fundamental principles.
In our Constitution, the media enjoy the same right as individuals to free speech. We believe that democracies become stronger and economies more vibrant by allowing expression of diverse voices, including from a free and unimpeded press. On May 3, just a few days ago, we commemorated World Press Freedom Day, at a time when as Secretary Kerry noted, for too many around the world, a free press is under assault, and the journalists, bloggers, photographers, essayists, and satirists who give life to the words “free press” are in danger. In addition, the conventional definition of “the press” is expanding to new platforms and voices. An independent and unfettered press, with open access to all social media – we find that to be an essential element of democratic societies.
However, in the United States, our First Amendment is not absolute. We permit some restriction of speech under certain critical conditions, such as when it presents a true threat to public safety or connotes the imminent commission of a crime. But restrictions on political and social speech receive the closest scrutiny. The American experience is not full of easy answers about how we can protect the fullest freedom of expression while also maintaining public order; this balance requires us to tinker and to adjust, as we do even to this day, but always with a strong bias toward individual liberty. So how to sustain that balance over time is a worthy subject for this conference.
Looking at the outstanding program that has been lined up for all of you, I wish I could stay for all of what will no doubt be a thought-provoking examination of the fundamental role that justice and rule of law play in society. I thank you again for the opportunity to take part today and wish you all a very successful symposium.