The World Justice Challenge 2021: Advancing the Rule of Law in a Time of Crisis seeks to identify, recognize, and promote accountable and inclusive governance practices and high-impact projects and policies that protect and advance the rule of law in this time of unprecedented crisis.
The COVID-19 crisis is presenting an enormous stress test for accountable governance on which an effective public health response depends. Responding to a public health emergency such as COVID-19 requires government institutions capable of delivering both preventive and emergency medical care while also maintaining other essential public services. Regardless of the exigencies of the crisis, governments must carry out these basic functions in accordance with the rule of law—open to the public, contestable in the courts and through elections governed by law, with the consent of the legislature, and reviewed by audit and other oversight bodies.
Constraints on executive power, which entails limiting the powers of the executive and holding them accountable for misconduct, is of paramount concern in the face of a national emergency when quick and decisive executive action to mitigate and contain the threat is required. There is no question that a deadly pandemic like COVID-19, which spreads quickly with little knowledge of how to treat or kill the virus, calls for strong emergency measures to protect all citizens, especially the most vulnerable. Nonetheless, emergency powers should be in accordance with the law, including international obligations; based on a legitimate objective; time bound; strictly necessary in a democratic society; the least restrictive and intrusive means available; and not arbitrary, unreasonable, or discriminatory.
The pandemic has had an acute short-term effect on legislatures and judiciaries, which play critical roles as frontline responders to the crisis and as bulwarks against abuse of executive powers. A proper allocation of government powers in national emergencies would allow these bodies to continue to operate, at a minimum for carrying out the essential business of writing laws, monitoring executive actions, protecting fundamental rights, addressing needs of constituents, and adjudicating disputes not only relevant to addressing the crisis, but also settling other legal disputes to ensure a minimum level of access to justice. Yet the lack of knowledge about how the virus is transmitted has spurred leaders of many parliaments and courts to shutter their doors for all but the most urgent business.
Similarly, the holding of periodic, transparent, free, and fair elections for political offices is a cherished mechanism for peaceful transitions of power and an effective tool for holding leaders accountable to the law and the public. States may derogate from this obligation in a public emergency only to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation. This critical limit on government powers, like many others, is already facing its own troubles, which the pandemic further exacerbates.
Finally, a healthy rule of law society requires checks on executive powers not only by separate branches of government but also by citizens, journalists, and civil society exercising their fundamental rights of expression, opinion, participation, association, and peaceful assembly. Unfortunately, dozens of studies have catalogued the steadily shrinking political space for civil society organizations and the media to carry out this vital role well before the COVID-19 crisis struck. Accountable governance also requires special efforts to include the voices of those most affected by the crisis to ensure public policies are responsive to the unique needs of vulnerable groups such as women and girls.
Guidelines for Applicants
Building on research and analysis by the World Justice Project and other organizations, the World Justice Challenge encourages project entries that address accountable governance risks posed by the pandemic including, but not limited to:
- Establishment of important rule-of-law guardrails to ensure executive authority is exercised properly and consistently with fundamental rights;
Legislatures, Judiciaries, and Oversight Bodies
- Adoption of secure technologies and processes by legislatures that will allow, at a minimum, emergency hearings, debates, and laws to be approved;
- Effective shifting of judicial activity to virtual technologies;
- Ensuring the continuation of services, establishing case prioritization schemes and working methods in consultation with the judiciary;
- Facilitation of auditing and other supervisory bodies to be able to carry out normal functions with access to information about executive expenditures as lawfully required;
- Establishment and implementation of basic election precautions, such as widely available protective gear, touchless paper or electronic ballots, sanitary protocols, and proper physical distancing, as well as consideration of special voting arrangements like early voting and by mail;
- Protection of nongovernmental checks on all aspects of government power, including upholding a host of rights and open government principles such as the right to information, active civic participation, functioning complaint mechanisms, freedom of opinion and expression, and freedom of assembly and association.
Webinar Event Recording
Accountable Governance and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Recommendations for Action
Co-sponsored by World Justice Challenge thematic partners International IDEA and the International Legal Assistance Consortium (ILAC), this discussion will focus on key accountable governance problems raised and exacerbated by the pandemic and discuss recommendations for actions needed to address the crisis' underlying challenges, support an effective recovery process, and build back better rule-of-law-based societies.