INTERVIEW: 'You cannot sustain economy without human rights,' says Finish law professor

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 3 Dec 2014

Pekk Hallberg, former president of the Supreme Administrative Court of Finland, talks to Ahram Online about the importance of the rule of law in transitional democracies

Pekk Hallberg
Finish law professor Pekk Hallberg

“There is no functioning society without common rules — the laws,” argues Pekk Hallberg, former president of the Supreme Administrative Court of Finland.

A professor of law, Hallberg spent the time since the end of his official mandate in 2012 studying the interwoven link between democratic transition and the rule of law.

His research has included developments in East Europe as well as Central Asia. This week, Hallberg arrived in Egypt, beginning an effort to “learn about the role of the rule of law” in building new regimes in the countries of the Arab Spring.

The well-versed expert has written and lectured extensively, including a lecture delivered Tuesday in Cairo on the modern legal system as a “multi-layered pyramid.” His main message is that “one of the main principles of rule of law is the public authorities’ conformity to law and that a citizen’s right is established to question the actions of the government and appeal decisions of authorities.”

“When it comes to guaranteeing justice for citizens, the exercise of public power, the administration and the jurisdiction concerning the administration, must be observed from the citizen’s point of view as a functional entity,” Hallberg told Ahram Online in an interview. His visit includes meeting top political and legal figures in the country.

“Of course this puts pressure on governments and it means that in the process of transition they will have to pursue reforms and ... will have to gain the trust of citizens,” he added.

For Hallberg, “Trust is a key word.” “If you trust those in power, you would want to work and build and achieve,” he argues.

“Trust, democracy, economy and welfare are the four pillars of any successfully law-observing regime,” Hallberg adds. While a successful regime will have these four elements, it cannot operate effectively on three or less, though progress in each can come at different paces and some variation in priorities.

“Obviously, there is no unified way — there is no single step-by-step approach, because much depends on the history, culture and different ways of doing things and of looking at things that change from one society to the other. But at the end of the day, these four elements are essential,” argued Hallberg.

Hallberg adds that, “We have seen things done one way in Eastern Europe countries as they pursued democratic reforms and in a different way in the Central Asia republics.”

The success achieved by one country compared to another is measured by international organisations that monitor democratic progress and anti-corruption measures and other elements of good governance, Hallberg explained. The more a country sticks to the four elements, the better ranking it has and the higher chances of achievements, he added.

“When you talk about building a new regime, a new democratic regime, you are talking about building a new house and any house has to have four corners. It is only obvious,” Hallberg said.

The four corners, Hallberg argued, are the confidence that citizens have in their legal system, the balance among powers, “and of course the separation of powers,” the observation of human rights, “liberties and socio-economic rights ... included,” and the functionality of the system, which means that the economy operates without oppressing rights.

“But let us be realistic here. In some countries it could take quite a long time before you get to this point. But also to be realistic we have to say that you need to get started, and that you need to get started on these four corners,” Hallberg added.

Hallberg insists it would be mistaken to try to prescribe a reduced version of the rule of law, whereby the government reminds citizens of their duties but neglects their rights. “That would break trust and this could make the process of rule itself unsustainable. Trust and sustainability are not separable,” he stressed.

In this particular respect, Hallberg is firm that having a good constitution and the right laws is not in itself sufficient to allow for a solid democratic transition. “A constitution is the basis, but its implementation is essential,” he insisted.

In a highly globalised world, he said, norms are becoming more and more universal while the argument of some that democracy is a Western concept, or that human rights are not essential for good governance, would soon be diminishing. Ultimately, Hallberg insists, the rule of law in its full and proper sense is decisive. 

These thoughts Hallberg shared with his Egyptian interlocutors as he learned from them about the Egyptian experience of transition following the January 2011 revolution.

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