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The rule of law has often been regarded as an abstract concept in development circles, a poor second cousin to the tangible targets set by the eight Millennium Development Goals. But that changed in January 2015, with the adoption by the African Union of Agenda 2063, which included the rule of law as one of its seven ‘Aspirations’ for Africa. Eight months later, the Sustainable Development Goals were formally agreed at the United Nations, with Goal 16, a stand-alone target focusing on peace, justice and strong institutions. Irene Khan, Director-General of the International Development Law Organisation (IDLO) said there is now global consensus that the rule of law and access to justice are an indivisible part of sustainable development. “They are no longer optional extras but a premise without which development cannot be sustained. The rule of law provides the framework for transparent, responsive and accountable institutions which strengthen people's trust and confidence, and by doing so, promote peaceful societies as well as development.” As the only multilateral organisation in the world exclusively devoted to advancing the rule of law and development, IDLO has launched an initiative to bring together politicians, judges, legal experts and practitioners from across the continent to instigate practical solutions to collective developmental challenges. In Dar es Salaam last week, the IDLO and the Government of Tanzania hosted a conference to discuss areas of concern and consider how to strengthen the rule of law as a driver for sustainable development. A cross section of voices contributed to the debate, which covered building effective institutions, constitutionalism and legal reform, access to justice and the rule of law for economic development. Over 100 delegates, including ministers, judges, legal experts and representatives from the international community, civil society and business participated in open discussions and shared experiences. They highlighted the need to strengthen the capacity of the judicial system and the knowledge of jurisprudence in Africa and to improve access to justice on the continent. Participants identified the importance of tackling barriers to investment - including corruption - and treating customary systems of justice as dynamic systems. They also offered practical mechanisms to support this work including integrating gender into judicial practice, establishing specialist commercial and corruption courts, initiating a multi-stakeholder discussion between government, business and civil society; and engaging with customary systems of justice, which are the main means of accessing justice in Africa. The conference was a first step in IDLO’s initiative to launch a conversation with Africans on Africa’s commitment to strengthen the rule of law and what the international community can do to support that. While Africa can boast some of the world’s fastest-growing economies, many countries continue to grapple with the challenges of poverty, inequality, health epidemics, environmental degradation and conflict. “Most conflicts in Africa are precipitated by a lack of, or break of the rule of law,” Tanzania’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Augustine Mahiga said at the conference. “Of the three realms of power, rule of law is probably the most sacrosanct. It is not subject to the whims of politics or the temporary nature of the executive,” he stressed. “The rule of law is the cornerstone of stability, peace and security, law and order, the protection of civilians and the protection of property.” With their roots in eliminating poverty and inequality, the Sustainable Development Goals and the African Union’s Agenda 2063 have recognised that the rule of law needs to be a visible force for the elimination of poverty and inequality. But laws and institutions by themselves are not enough. “The rule of law is not just about adherence to laws - it is about a commitment to justice - social as well as legal,” Ms Khan said. “We know changes in development fortunes occur only when the poor and marginalised are empowered to act and address the root causes of their impoverishment and disempowerment. And how do we empower the poor? Field experience and research show that the poor are empowered through access to justice and information, just laws and capable institutions. So again, the answer lies in the rule of law.”

The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.