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In Search of a Balanced Concept: Framing the Discussion on the Rule of Law

Noora Arajärvi
Thursday, October 22, 2020, 1:30 pm – 2:30 pm

ABSTRACT / "In a divided world, the concept of the rule of law is one of the greatest unifying factors, perhaps the greatest, the nearest we are likely to come to a universal principle" President of Cyprus at the High-level Meeting on the Rule of Law, 24 September 2012.

The above statement encapsulates the backbone of the presentation as well as the general underlying objective of my work, which combines theoretical thought and conceptual analysis with practical insights acquired at the UN Rule of Law Unit: What do we talk about when we talk about the rule of law? Is there universal rule of law? Does it exist across national systems or only at the international level, and what does it look like?

This presentation frames the discussion on the rule of law by addressing definitional challenges and the normative richness of the concept and its applications. On the outset it is recognised that there is no single definition of the rule of law: its ‘thickness’ or ‘thinness’ depends on the requirements at various levels (international, EU, national) and which interdisciplinary interests (e.g. legal, political, historical, philosophical, economic) are amplifying or reducing its configuration at any given time. Nonetheless, the inclusion of some form of a rule of law in all societies and into all legal systems is a testament to its existence and significance.

The presentation will, first, explore the complexity of the concept of the rule of law at the international level and the multi-layered semantics surrounding it, utilising these to come to a more precise point of departure for future work on the values in the rule of law discourse, which I will introduce subsequently. Secondly, it aims to set the tone for normative assessment of the rule of law – showing that utilising it as a catch-all-category in political parlance dilutes its normative specificity and credibility. At the same time, the rule of law is not useful as a skeleton tool either, stripped of value-based content such as the respect for fundamental rights and democratic processes. Finally, examples of the varied contemporary understandings of the rule of law are drawn from intergovernmental processes and instruments. In particular, the 2030 Agenda, its preparatory works, and review and reporting mechanisms provide an abundant source of references and topical debates into the notion of the rule of law, many at the definitional intersection of national and international, and legal and political.

As I endorse research-led teaching, this presentation demonstrates how I impart questions of high-level of complexity to students: recognising the issue or challenge, tracing its source and surrounding doctrinal, legal and political debate, applying empirical analysis in dissecting its jurisprudential and practical implications, and analysing the normative relevance in the broader context of legal and political systems.

Please register for the event using this link.

BIO / Dr. Noora Arajärvi is an international legal scholar currently working at the Hertie School in Berlin developing research ethics policy and as an academic consultant for the EURO-EXPERT-project at Université Paris Nanterre (and previously at University Oxford) exploring cultural expertise in judicial proceedings, in particular in relation to human rights.

After gaining professional experience in building rule of law strategy and coordination at the Rule of Law Unit in the Executive Office of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, she returned to academia to a postdoctoral fellowship with the Berlin Potsdam Research Group ‘The International Rule of Law – Rise or Decline?’, followed by a fellowship at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law in Heidelberg and a research project on the ‘The Accountability Deficits of Major Western Powers’ at the University of Essex. Her previous academic positions include lectureships at the University of Central Lancashire and the University of the West Indies.

Dr. Arajärvi holds a Ph.D. in Law (European University Institute), LLM (University of Helsinki) and LLB (University of Sheffield). She has published extensively in the area of international law, rule of law, legal theory and the SDGs, and is the author of the monograph "The Changing Nature of Customary International Law: Methods of Interpreting the Concept of Custom in International Criminal Tribunals". Dr. Arajärvi serves as deputy chair of the Interest Group on International Legal Theory and Philosophy of the European Society of International Law, active member of the International Affairs Working Group of Finnish Federation of Graduate Women, and rapporteur for Oxford International Organizations Database (expert area: United Nations and the rule of law).