The Belt Challenge and the Need for a Think

The Belt Challenge and the Need for a Think 16 March 2017

By Sam Muller, HiiL CEO

This will be a bit of an odd column: I’m going to talk international relations. Yes – I know I am a lawyer and not a foreign policy wonk. But I am worried about Europe. No, I don’t mean Brexit, Greek debts, or German, French and Dutch elections. A much bigger challenge lies more to the South, below Italy’s boot. I call that challenge the Belt. It’s a bit of a crude word, because it gives the impression that it’s a single challenge. It’s not. Justice is a large part of it.

Picture yourself on the top of the Mont Blanc. Look southwest to Morocco and then slowly turn eastward to Yemen. What stretches out before you is a belt of instability: states that rumble, like Tunisia and Egypt, and states that have crumbled, like Libya and Yemen. Further in the distance you will be eyeing the Sahel region and the vast Democratic Republic of Congo, where the crumbling and rumbling is complemented with extreme poverty. The demographics within the Belt are rather specific: the population is growing extremely fast and the vast majority of the current population is young – in the range between 15 and 25 years old. Most of these countries have minimal education capacity. Economic opportunity is limited – unemployment is very high. More mouths to feed and more people to take care of nullify almost every percentage of economic growth that is achieved. The social contract in most of the countries of the belt is absent, weak or under heavy negotiation. Most of the states within the Belt are categorized in the ‘warning’ and ‘alert’ cohort of the 2016 Fragile State Index. Already now, many of the people in the Belt have access to the Internet. Very soon all of them will, which will give them means to connect, communicate, and coordinate, and eyes with which to look at us, in cosy Europe.

What you see, standing there on Europe’s highest summit, is a serious zone of instability. That instability, we already see, tends to flow northwards. Leaving concern about human suffering aside, we Europeans have a very direct interest that the Belt becomes a region with at least somewhat stable states. Now here’s the rub: when that which threatens you is power, you can face it with power. In the good old days of the Cold War that is what the US and Russia did. But power means very little in the face of weakness: fragile states, regions, and even cities. The Internet and other forms of connectivity compound this: we live in an age in which a single person can spread ideas to thousands. And thousands can coordinate to become a movement. To deal with state weakness in a hyperconnected world something different is needed and we have not fully yet worked out what. Worse: we are not even putting together a strategy to figure that out.

Sustained peace and stability has many essential elements. A basic level of economic opportunity, social cohesion, security, and good governance are some of them. A critical component connected with each of these is the rule of law. This is recognized in Sustainable Development Goal 16, which is seen as a key foundational component of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

I won’t say rule of law is the whole answer to the Belt challenge, but it most certainly is a very important part of it. A well-functioning justice system resembles the operating system of a computer. It provides the rule system that allows citizens to coordinate, agree on ways to organise governance, international relations, commercial transactions, family relationships, and livelihood arrangements, and to settle differences in these fields. All along the Belt, from east to west, justice systems are not providing what they should. In Yemen, where we did a nation-wide justice needs survey before the war broke out, 94% of the population experienced a serious justice problem in the previous four years. In Mali the figure was 30% – at an average rate of one serious justice problem every two years. Most of these justice problems were connected with the most basic social and livelihood needs: safety, land, family, and housing. It is obvious that the operating system is not working. For these populations it is not a question about how much justice you get but how much injustice you can live with. Serious justice problems are known to lead to significant health issues, and they hit the poorest hardest. Research has confirmed that legal insecurity leads to lower investments in households, businesses and the specialised skills required to obtain better jobs. Every dollar and hour spent on protection against crime or extortion is a dollar less that is spent on education, sanitation or health care. Sustained feelings of injustice can lead to violence and ultimately distrust in government, which, at best effects compliance and tax returns and at worst leads to insurgency.

So what is happening? Not much, really. The European approach to the Belt Challenge is largely restricted to patrolling the Mediterranean with navy ships, going after smugglers, the same-old-same-old development aid, and deals on migration. This will not make the problem go away. It is fair to assume that the Belt will continue to be one of the most serious stability challenges for Europe in the next 20 years, if not more. And what do we have to go by? Not much: despite efforts over many decades, the international community has not been very effective at rebuilding stability through rule of law.

So is it not time for a Deep Multilateral Think on how to meet this challenge, followed by a long-term, sustained commitment to action, based on that Think?

To start things off, a few elements that may point in some of the right directions:

  • It would be good to adopt an evidence-based approach. A lot of good and different data about justice seems critical.
  • The health sector has taught us: keep people and their needs at the centre. That’s the way to get to cures – even justice cures.
  • It will not only be about building capacity and sharing best practices; it will also be about politics. Power asymmetries will need to be addressed; incentives will need to be realigned. Read the 2017 World Development Report.
  • Local context is key. Foreign legal concepts only go skin-deep in many areas. And, see above, its always also about politics. Local politics.
  • International context is key. It’s also about international and regional politics. Good progress was being made on rule of law development at the national level when Yemen was suddenly engulfed in an international and violent conflict in which Iran and Saudi Arabia were the main actors. The UN was powerless.
  • Work iteratively and learn. Build in room to fail, learn, and start again.
  • Use the latest technology and science – it can make a huge difference.
  • Embed the rule of law building in a smart, still to be designed financial ecosystem. It has to make economic sense to invest in justice.
  • And, lastly: be there for the long run.

In the past three weeks I met three ministers of justice/assistant ministers of justice, all connected to the Belt. All of them faced tremendous challenges. All of them sat a little more upright when I raised the possibility of new approach. All them let their shoulders drop a little when they spoke of the institutional resistance ‘new approaches’ face. Lets reach out and get cracking. For the future of Europe.


This blog first appeared on Slaw, Canada’s online legal magazine.