Editorial - IGI February/March 2017: separation of powers and the rule of law are being tested to the extreme

James Lewis

‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,’ as Lord Acton put it in 1887. The separation of powers – whereby executive, legislature and judiciary check and balance the use, and potential abuse, of power – is in place to protect democratic states and their people, and is a principle that goes back at least as far as Ancient Greece and Aristotle.

It’s fair to say we’re living through a remarkably dramatic moment in history when the separation of powers and the rule of law are being tested to the extreme – and, on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s certainly true in America, where the newly-inaugurated President’s executive orders are proving highly controversial and face challenges in the courts. These challenges look set to make their way, eventually, to the highest level of the American judiciary – the Supreme Court.

It’s also true in Europe. The UK’s government took the slimmest of referendum margins as giving the executive power to trigger exit from the EU, without reference to the democratically elected legislature – members of parliament. The UK’s Supreme Court – in an historic judgment on constitutional law that will resonate for many years to come – ruled otherwise. In many ways, the power of Putin and the Russian parliament to sign into law controversial measures, such as the amendment that decriminalises domestic violence, apparently unchecked and unchallenged, is more concerning.

These and similar challenges have placed rule of law and human rights at the very top of the global agenda. The IBA – for which upholding the rule of law around the world has been a core raison d’être since the Association’s inception 70 years ago – takes such developments extremely seriously. Efforts are already underway to ensure potential abuses of power, particularly in America, don’t go unchecked or unchallenged. As a part of that effort, you’ll see in the pages that follow coverage of the new US President’s travel ban and reaction across the region from Global Insight’s Middle East correspondent; coverage of the new President’s ‘treaty undoing project’; concerns that women’s rights, hard-won over years, are in jeopardy. The IBA’s Human Rights Institute will, of course, be a key part of the Association’s efforts: an open letter has already been sent, calling for the newly-inaugurated President to address human rights. This type of coverage and similar initiatives look likely to be prominent for the foreseeable future. If the current drama continues unabated, they’re likely to expand.