At the recent UN summit in New York, countries made a pledge for renewed efforts to strengthen their work to push on and build on the initial progress of lead countries’ progress on SDG 16. Different processes are named as acceleration action or justice innovation for reducing X and increasing Y. There is also a global call for a decade of action for implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

But there is a real risk that the word clouds and numbers unintentionally hide the real challenge at hand – the imperative of strengthening institutions that actually respect the rule of law most of the time and in most of the cases. And not just sometimes, and in relation to specific cases.

This brief takes a critical look at the state of play of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and in particular SDG16 where the rule of law is to be found. It reviews recent progress on SDG16.3 (access to justice and the rule of law), and observes a worrying trend; countries rally around SDG16 but many use the opportunity for ‘rule of law washing’. They report progress on access to justice but fall short on the rule of law as a principle of governance and as a real check-and-balance on arbitrary power. 

It does not have to be like this, and there is momentum for tackling the problem of rule of law washing more head-on. This brief suggests five steps for doing so, concentrating on the rule of law principles of effectiveness, accountability and transparency to lead the way.

Authors: Shane Quinn (Director of Programmes at ILAC) and Richard Sannerholm (Director of Assessments and Legal Analysis at ILAC).