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Supercharging UK support to the rule of law abroad

Article by Murray Hunt

October 19, 2021

Supercharging UK support to the rule of law abroad

The rule of law and the Integrated Review

The rule of law’s place in the Integrated Review is something of a walk on part.[1]


Alongside a commitment to universal human rights, free speech, fairness and equality, the rule of law is identified as one of the “shared values” said to be fundamental to our national identity, democracy and way of life, helping to bind the UK together as a nation state.[2] As well as playing this constitutive role at the national level, a shared belief in the rule of law is also said to be one of the “common values” that underpins the UK’s key strategic alliance with its number one friend, the US, together with a shared belief in democracy and fundamental freedoms.[3]


The role envisaged by the Integrated Review for these shared essential values that underpin both the UK itself and its key strategic alliances is akin to that played by “directive principles of state policy” in some post-imperial written constitutions – they “will continue to guide all aspects of our national security and international policy in the decade ahead.”[4] The chapter on the “force for good agenda” arguably goes a little further. Promoting the rule of law is expressly referred to there as one of the “priority actions” in the Government’s strategy of being a force for good in the world by supporting open societies, alongside promoting effective and transparent governance and robust democratic institutions.[5]


None of this feels particularly new. As Sir Simon Fraser, former Head of the Foreign Office, has observed, there is a striking degree of continuity in the new Strategy’s familiar advocacy of a British foreign policy with global reach, committed to the values of liberal democracy, trade, the rule of law and the expression of soft power.[6] The UK already supports the rule of law abroad in a variety of ways, too many to mention here. It defends and promotes the rule of law through its membership of a range of international organisations, including the UN, NATO, the Commonwealth, the OSCE and the Council of Europe. It funds the Rule of Law Expertise UK (ROLE UK) programme, for example, run by Advocates for International Development (A4ID), which supports partnerships to provide pro bono legal and judicial expertise with the aim of strengthening the rule of law in Official Development Assistance-eligible countries, although the future of that programme when its current funding ends in March 2022 is in doubt;[7] and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which supports the development of democracy around the world.[8] Other rule of law support is provided through human rights and democracy programmes or through research funding from funds like the Global Challenges Research Fund, although such funding has been significantly reduced this year due to the reduction in the aid budget from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent GNI.[9]


The Integrated Review therefore only appears to offer continuity in relation to the rule of law, and on a reduced budget at that. There is very little in the Review to connect the rule of law as part of the vague values agenda to the Review’s much more ambitious aspiration to shape the open international order of the future.


Should those who believe that there is a smarter way for the UK to support the rule of law abroad settle for business as usual, with less money? Or is there a risk of a major missed opportunity here – an opportunity for the Integrated Review, and the strategies that will follow it, to supercharge the UK’s support for the rule of law abroad in a way which would make badly needed global leadership on the rule of law a plausible claim for Global Britain?


The case for supercharging

The commitment in the Integrated Review to be proactive in reshaping the international order by supporting open societies provides an opportunity for a strategic step-change in the UK’s support for the rule of law abroad. The case for seizing that opportunity is overwhelming.


First, as President Biden has recently acknowledged in his remarks on the US’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, the era of militarily-enforced rule of law building is over.[10] This geopolitical turning point, which the Integrated Review failed to anticipate, has profound implications for the post-Brexit aspiration to be Global Britain. By exposing the limits of the UK’s power and influence in the world, even over its closest ally, events in Afghanistan have rudely revealed the nakedness of that rhetorical slogan before it had a chance to get any clothes on. Rule of law strengthening in ungoverned spaces cannot be done by force. Much smarter rule of law leadership is required, deploying not military power but the soft power of influence and assistance.


Second, international leadership on the rule of law is nevertheless still badly needed in the face of multiple challenges, as the Integrated Review itself acknowledges: growing authoritarianism in a number of states, the persistence of extremist ideologies, and the recent sense of drift while previous global leaders on rule of law have been distracted by domestic political upheaval.


Third, weak rule of law remains one of the most important and fundamental global challenges: stronger rule of law is a precondition of meeting so many of the most pressing challenges the world faces – climate change, pandemics, terrorism, modern slavery, poverty and illicit finance for example. Effective and just responses require strong legal frameworks and well-functioning legal systems.


Fourth, the UK’s meta-commitment to “a rules-based international order” is best understood as itself a manifestation of its commitment to the rule of law. The rule of law in the international order is after all, as Tom Bingham described it, “the domestic rule of law writ large”.[11]


Fifth, the UK is well placed to develop a genuine USP on the rule of law. As the home of Magna Carta, which is universally identified with the very idea of the rule of law, a stable legal system including incorruptible and robustly independent judges, and a generally deserved reputation for being on the whole a rule of law-regarding nation, the UK can very plausibly claim the rule of law to be one of its most important assets when it comes to international influence.[12] Former Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab clearly had this in mind in his Aspen Security Conference speech in March when he referred to the strength of the UK’s institutions and its knack for creating enduring systems, describing the rule of law as “perhaps our greatest contribution … the sacred principle, the foundation of order at home and abroad … a particularly British tradition with global appeal.”[13] If combined with an awareness of the need to avoid distorted, one-dimensional historical narratives, and an appropriate humility in recognising that other cultures have also made important contributions to the very idea of the rule of law, the UK clearly has some leadership capital.[14]


Finally, the UK’s support for rule of law abroad would benefit from integration in a number of senses. Integrating overlapping strands that make up the values agenda would make for a more coherent strategy on human rights, democracy and rule of law, in which, for example, the importance of electoral courts to the protection of democracy is a clear strategic priority because of the confluence of the rule of law, democracy and the fundamental right to vote. Integrating the FCO’s respected expertise on the international rule of law with DFID’s accumulated wisdom about the importance of local culture, context and politics when trying to strengthen governance in other countries would also help to avoid the ever-present risk of rule of law imperialism, as well as joining up too often fragmented rule of law work by different departments.[15]


What would supercharged UK support for rule of law look like?

The international rule of law leadership to which the UK aspires requires more than the easy rhetoric of Global Britain. It requires a long-term, strategic approach, including resources, thought leadership, collaboration, better use of data and an underpinning architecture ensuring that rule of law policy is properly informed by independent and robust evidence, research and analysis. It also requires the UK to make sure its own house is in order. States claiming to be capable of international leadership will be judged by the values they purport to champion. Contempt for or carelessness about the international rule of law, such as that shown in the UK Internal Market Bill authorising breaches of international law, are not compatible with claims to be international rule of law leaders.[16]


What is urgently needed, in short, is a new, smarter and more imaginative approach to global rule of law leadership by the UK. Against the background of a clear assessment of the effectiveness of previous UK support for the rule of law abroad, an integrated Strategy on Human Rights, Democracy and the Rule of Law should be drawn up, grounded in a clear and robust definition of what the Government understands the rule of law to mean in practice, enabling it to move beyond rhetorical claims about the rule of law and to defend and argue for substantive outcomes that the rule of law requires. Such an integrated strategy would provide a platform for an internationally collaborative, consensus-building approach, working closely with allies in every international forum, and engaging directly with states where the rule of law is under threat from current authoritarian governments, supported by the highest quality data, evidence and research.


Here are some concrete recommendations about how to get there.



  1. Assess the effectiveness of UK’s aid spending on rule of law

The Independent Commission for Aid Impact should review the UK’s approach to strengthening the rule of law through the aid programme, similar to its recent review of the UK’s approach to tackling modern slavery.[17] This would provide the first systematic assessment of the effectiveness of the UK’s overall aid spending on the rule of law and would provide a baseline for evaluating the success of future efforts.[18] In keeping with the rule of law’s relative Cinderella status, democracy and human rights currently feature in ICAI’s future work plan, but not rule of law.[19] ICAI’s upcoming review of democracy and human rights should be expanded to include rule of law.


  1. Use the Open Societies Strategy as an opportunity to formulate the UK’s first integrated Strategy on Human Rights, Democracy and the Rule of Law

To achieve a strategic step-change in the UK’s interconnected work to promote human rights, democracy and the rule of law there must first be an integrated strategy. The rule of law is always right up there with democracy and human rights when it comes to broad assertions of the values to which the UK and its allies are committed.[20] But when we look for the detailed strategies, the delivery plans, the machinery of government, the research and analysis, the monitoring and evaluation, the benchmarks and the indicators, the reports to Parliament, the checks on aid funding – all the things that are required to give practical effect to a fundamental strategic commitment – the rule of law becomes rather elusive.


The lack of an integrated strategy is an increasingly frequent criticism of the Government’s approach.[21] FCDO’s explanation of why it reports to Parliament on its human rights and democracy but not its rule of law work is that the rule of law is a thread that runs through all human rights and it therefore would neither be informative nor helpful to separate out and report on rule of law strands in its human rights and democracy work.[22] That is an equally powerful argument for an integrated strategy covering all three of these overlapping and interlocking values. In its forthcoming consultation on its Open Societies Strategic Framework the Government should consult about the benefits and risks of adopting such an integrated strategy. An integrated strategy would facilitate a smarter ‘democratic rule of law’ approach, in which the democratic branches are acknowledged to have an important role to play in upholding the rule of law. It would shine a light on policy gaps, such as the lack of rule of law check similar to the Human Rights and Gender Equality check on all UK funded aid programmes. It would also provide a framework for crucial reporting, monitoring and evaluation, which will enhance democratic accountability for this important work.


  1. Move beyond rule of law rhetoric by adopting the Venice Commission’s definition of the rule of law and defending it against competing authoritarian conceptions

The Government recently resisted the Foreign Affairs Committee’s recommendation that it should provide a clear definition of what it means by the rule of law, on the ground that it is “a difficult concept to define with consistency” and is often misused by leaders of authoritarian governments who control both the making and the application of the law in their states.[23] The Government’s position on the difficulty of defining the rule of law with consistency is curious. Of course it is true that authoritarian states will claim to be complying with the rule of law, using a much narrower and formalistic conception of it. But not to contest that narrow conception, by robustly arguing for a broader one, is an abdication of rule of law leadership. There is now a very broad consensus about the core meaning of the rule of law which the UK Government should be prepared to defend. The Rule of Law Checklist, drawn up by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission for Democracy through Law, contains a detailed account of what the rule of law means as a practical concept.[24] It was heavily influenced by the account of the rule of law left to us by Lord Tom Bingham, the former Senior Law Lord, in his 2010 book The Rule of Law.[25]


The Government should flesh out its rhetorical invocations of the rule of law and be prepared to be more granular in defining what the rule of law is and what it requires. It should expressly adopt the Venice Commission’s Rule of Law Checklist, which has been endorsed by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, in its work supporting the rule of law abroad, and be prepared to defend that conception of the rule of law against narrow, formalistic conceptions invoked by authoritarian governments.[26]


  1. Establish the infrastructure to enable long-term, evidence-based strategic thinking to influence UK Government policy on rule of law

Tobias Ellwood MP, Conservative Chair of the Commons Defence Committee, has recently written that Afghanistan has exposed the shortfalls in Whitehall’s strategic thinking and the reactive nature of UK foreign policy: “Despite the fanfare of our ‘global Britain’ branding, the Whitehall bandwidth is too limited and not sufficiently strategic to offer the big picture thought-leadership that has the potential to generate solutions to international problems.”[27] Tony Blair, reflecting recently on the War on Terror waged after 9/11, made a very similar observation. This is as true for rule of law as it is for foreign policy more generally. The infrastructure necessary to enable long-term, evidence-based strategic thinking to influence policy on supporting rule of law should be created, for example by establishing an innovative Policy and Evidence Centre on the Rule of Law and Democracy modelled on the success of existing centres such as those on Modern Slavery and Human Rights and on the Creative Industries, both funded by the independent research councils.[28]


  1. Galvanise international political commitment to collaborative rule of law strengthening by establishing a Global Partnership/Commission for the Rule of Law

Rule of law strengthening requires a collaborative global response, led by a body capable of galvanising international political commitment in multilateral frameworks, such as the Global Education Commission led by former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown.[29] The UK Government has begun to build on the vision in the Integrated Review of building strategic alliances with like-minded nations for which the rule of law is one of the shared values that forms the basis for collaboration to agree action to address major global challenges.[30] It should go further and initiate the creation of a Global Partnership/Commission for the Rule of Law, to be led by a former world leader with international credibility on the rule of law, capable of securing high-level political buy-in from states and to lead the joining up of the currently disparate and fragmented rule of law programming work taking place globally under a more co-ordinated and collaborative international framework with clear strategic priorities. This effort could be one of the UK’s commitments at the upcoming Summit for Democracy in December, to be galvanised during a UK-hosted Global Conference on the Rule of Law in 2022, following up on the international conference on the Rule of Law held in London in 2012 during the UK Chairmanship of Council of Europe.[31]


  1. Leverage resources for rule of law strengthening by establishing a Global Fund for the Rule of Law

Effective rule of law strengthening also requires resources if it is to be scalable. As admirable and important as the work of ROLE UK is, stronger rule of law cannot be achieved on the global scale required by relying on lawyers and judges to put in some pro bono hours to build capacity in developing countries. The UK Government should join forces with other interested governments to establish a Global Fund for the Rule of Law, modelled on other Global Funds such as the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery (GFEMS) and the Global Fund to Fights Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, as advocated by the Council on Foreign Relations.[32] A relatively modest contribution of seed funding of £10m each from a number of donor governments committed to the rule of law would likely leverage contributions from the private sector which stands to gain so significantly from the growth in economic prosperity that, evidence suggests, will result from global rule of law strengthening at scale.


Murray Hunt is Director of the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, an independent research institute dedicated to proactively advancing the rule of law worldwide. He is also Director of the Policy and Evidence Centre on Modern Slavery and Human Rights, which has been established with £10m of funding from UK Research and Innovation’s Strategic Priorities Fund to conduct policy-influencing research capable of transforming the effectiveness of laws and policies to counter modern slavery. He is the UK’s alternate member of the Venice Commission for Democracy through Law, and a Visiting Professor in Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford where he leads the Parliaments, Rule of Law and Human Rights Research Project. He was Legal Adviser to the Joint Committee on Human Rights in the UK Parliament from 2004 to 2017. He is currently a Legal Adviser to the APPG on the Rule of Law. He writes this in a personal capacity.


[1] Cabinet Office, Global Britain in a competitive age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy,, March 2021,

[2] Integrated Review, p. 13, para. 14.

[3] Integrated Review, p. 60.

[4] See e.g. the Constitution of Ireland and the Constitution of India.

[5] Integrated Review, pp. 47-48.

[6] Sir Simon Fraser, Will the UK’s Integrated Review of foreign policy really make a difference?, Flint, April 2021,

[7] ROLE UK (Rule of Law Expertise), What we do,; Advocates for International Development (A4ID), see website:

[8] WFD, About,

[9] UK Research and Innovation, Global Challenges Research Fund,

[10] Remarks by President Biden on the End of the War in Afghanistan, The White House, August 2021,

[11] Tom Bingham (2010). The Rule of Law. London: Penguin Global. pp. 110-111.

[12] Sir Mark Lyall Grant, The Integrated Review’s concept of Global Britain – is it realistic?, King’s College London, July 2021,

[13] FCDO and The Rt Hon Dominic Raab MP, A force for good: Global Britain in a competitive age,, March 2021,

[14] Kenan Malik, We should not allow the Anglosphere to distort the history of liberty, The Guardian, September 2021,

[15] Samuel Sharp, To promote open societies globally, the FCDO must be more realistic, politically savvy and self-aware, ODI, December 2020,

[16] For an analysis of the offending clauses of the UK Internal Market Bill, see:

[17] Sir Hugh Bayley, The UK’s approach to tackling modern slavery through the aid programme, ICAI, October 2020,

[18] When the Independent Commission for Aid Impact reviewed the UK Development Assistance for Security and Justice in 2015, it concluded that the programme performs relatively poorly overall against ICAI’s criteria for effectiveness and value for money, and that significant improvements were necessary.

[19] ICAI, Future work plan,

[20] See e.g. the Preface to the FCDO’s 2020 Human Rights and Democracy Report by the then Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, July 2021,

[21] See e.g., Ben Ward, The value of a UK strategy on human rights, FPC, September 2020,; Alex Thier, A Force for Good in the World: Placing Democratic Values at the Heart of the UK’s International Strategy, WFD, July 2020,

[22] House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Global Britain: Human rights and the rule of law: Government response to the Committee’s Thirteenth Report, Sixteenth Special Report of Session 2017-19, HC 1759, p. 9.

[23] House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, Global Britain: Human rights and the rule of law, Thirteenth Report of Session 2017-19, HC 874, para. 24.; House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Global Britain: Human rights and the rule of law: Government response to the Committee’s Thirteenth Report, Sixteenth Special Report of Session 2017-19, HC 1759, p. 9.

[24] Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, The Rule of Law Checklist, March 2016,

[25] Tom Bingham (2010). The Rule of Law. London: Penguin Global.

[26] Council of Europe, Rule of Law Checklist – endorsed by the Parliamentary Assembly, October 2017,

[27] Tobias Ellwood, Britain must rediscover the will to lead on global issues, The Guardian, September 2021,

[28] Modern Slavery & Human Rights, see website:; Creative Industries: Policy & Evidence Centre, see website:

[29] The Education Commission, see website:

[30] See e.g. the Communique of the recent G7 Summit at Carbis Bay, June 2021,; and the Shared Statement on the value and role of open societies issued by the G7+ (including Australia, India, the Republic of Korea and South Africa), 2021 Open Societies Statement, June 2021,

[31] The Summit for Democracy, see website:; Conference on “The Rule of Law as a Practical Concept”, co-convened in London by the European Commission for Democracy through Law in co-operation with the FCO and the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law under the auspices of the UK Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, March 2012,

[32] Global Fund to End Modern Slavery, see website:; The Global Fund, see website:; Council on Foreign Relations, see website:

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