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The View from Here: The rule of law

Mike Gangwer Published on 06 February 2009

In a previous column, I reported to you my new assignment to Washington, D.C., and then to Baghdad, Iraq.

My assignment as soil and water policy adviser to the Iraqi Minister of Agriculture is 13 months long and will begin soon.

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The “soon” part is a guess. I am moving through the mandatory tasks of preparing for overseas work as a foreign services officer (FSO). For instance, there are two clearances that must be obtained – security and medical. A secret security clearance through the Department of State is valid for 10 years. Mine was completed just over two years ago, so that task is already completed. The medical clearance for worldwide assignments, also through the State Department, is valid for two years only. Mine has expired, so I have filled out a request for continuance, based on no change in medical conditions. I buttressed my case by having a third-class pilot’s medical certificate, a requirement necessary so that I can legally fly my small-engine airplane with passengers aboard. I am waiting for an answer as of this writing.

The next step will be scheduling my training at the Foreign Services Institute (FSI) in Arlington, Virginia. This training is administered by the U.S. State Department for all FSOs working overseas; attendance is mandatory. The training, which is three weeks long, prepares us for the cultural and physical challenges of working overseas as well as with some introductory language skills. My 10-month experience in Afghanistan and my dozen or so short-term trips in other parts of the world have already given me some insight. The FSI training builds on that. I’ll write a future column or two about my work in Arlington.

Shortly after completing my FSI training, I board a commercial airplane for either Jordan or Kuwait and then take a military aircraft into Baghdad for my yearlong work at the U.S. Embassy.

For the balance of this article, I am writing about a fundamental concept all FSOs keep in mind as we complete our assignments – the rule of law.

As you listen to diplomats talk about their work, efforts, success and, yes, their failures, you’ll hear them mention the rule of law. The term has multiple meanings, but we may merge these into the following general statement: Rule of law is based on the premise that no person, regardless of stature, position, social status, religion, sex, color or any other divisive metric is above the law. The premise is based on the Greek model and was further made more concrete by the Stoics. The concreteness was later manifested in the Magna Carta developed in England. Its essence is elegant: The law is king rather than the king is law. Thomas Paine in Common Sense wrote: “The world may know, that so far as we approve of monarchy, that in America the law is king. For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be King; and there ought to be no other.”

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In the U.S. the rule of law includes checks and balances between three branches of government – the executive, legislative and judicial. The rule of law must be applied uniformly, be accessible to everyone and provide due process for those accused of civil and criminal offense. Thus, arbitrary acts of state authority based on the powerful exercising of indiscriminate lawlessness degrade society and human rights.

History is full of examples. Yet we know that until the rule of law is established or at least is a work in progress, we have a society, nation or culture that has failed or will fail. The rule of law is antagonistic towards authoritarian or totalitarian rulers. It is antagonistic towards weak governments that encourage corruption and secret control. Therefore a government must be transparent, it must be free and independent of the press and it must encourage the democratization of free expression of descent and discord, in so far as no civil or criminal laws are violated. We may disagree, but we may not physically harm each other.

Elections are the cornerstone of rule of law. The vote of one as a participant in civil society counts. The vote of one president or king counts the same as a vote of one laborer or dissenter Private property rights are frequently a huge challenge in much of the world. The rule of law establishes the respect for private property and the legal framework for contracts and agreements. It embodies equal treatment of all people based on agreed upon laws that are applied to everyone. They are established in a constitution and are implemented in a civil society as basic human rights.

For elected officials, the rule of law means they put the interests of those they serve ahead of their own self-serving interests. That means that no elected official is above the law. A free press, unencumbered and objective, helps keep them accountable. Yet at times we find elected officials have let us down. They have taken advantage of position, power and authority to skirt the laws of man, which violates the rule of law.

Many of us grew up in homes with parents embedding the Golden Rule into our childhood: “Treat others as you would have them treat you.” Therefore, as I enter another chapter of overseas work, I will remember the words of the Golden Rule, and I will always do what I can to think about moving the Iraqi people towards an entrenched and embodied state dependent on the rule of law for survival. To do otherwise fails to move an institution towards democratic reform. This, then, is our mission and our calling to serve and transform Iraq into a functioning democratic country. PD

Mike GangwerUSDA – NRCS
Nutrient Management Specialist

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