The concept of rule of law finds its origin in the rulings of Chief Justice Sir Edward Coke wherein he emphasised the significance of the King being under the law. However, it was only later that A. V. Dicey in his book: Introduction to the study of the Law of the Constitution, 1885, tried developing the concept further. He identified three components of the rule of law–
- The supremacy of law
- Equality before law
- Constitution as a result of ordinary law of the land (signifying the relevance of judge-made laws in England)
These components ensured that the rule of law acted as a constraint on the arbitrary exercise of power by the sovereign over its subjects. Therefore, his primary focus was on the way in which the law was made, applied, and enforced (process-focused approach), rather than the actual content of the law (end-focussed approach). This creates a lot of confusion with respect to the applicability of the rule of law. Modern democracies are founded on this principle, however, there are contrasting convictions about what ‘law’ is/should be.
Previously, the concept of rule of law was limited in its application to the sovereign territory of the state as the interactions were primarily intranational. However, over a period of time, with the advent of technology and the movement of people, goods and services across borders, such interaction became international, leading to cross-border disputes. Through the process of globalization, “political, economic, and technological changes have had globalizing ramifications that penetrate state borders in ways that transformed the core rule of law values in the international legal order and have created a shift away from the previously prevailing state-centric system.”
With respect to the applicability of rule of law at the international level, globalisation has made the world one single market where individual and state entities interact with other individuals and entities on a daily basis. Therefore, such interaction cannot be left unchecked with respect to the foundation principle of the legal system i.e. the rule of law. Hence, there is a need to transpose the principle of rule of law, internationally, in light of the globalized world. The significance of rule of law at the international level in the era of globalisation has been pointed out a number of times.
However, this transposition is easier said than done. There are some inherent issues in applying the principle globally. Firstly, with respect to whether such a principle, which was originally developed to be applicable to the national legal system, can be applied to the international legal system, in the absence of a central sovereign authority. Secondly, if the answer to the first issue is affirmative, does such international application require a reconceptualization of the original concept of rule of law in order to adapt it to the legal issues arising at the international level. Thirdly, should the international rule of law be limited in its application with respect to the relationship of different sovereign nation-states, or should it also be applied to the relationship of different individuals who are subjects of such nation-states?
The first roadblock towards the applicability of the principle of rule of law in the globalised world today encompasses the fact that there is no common sovereign power in the international arena. There is United Nations, however, the international law establishing such an institution, is a soft law in itself. Besides, it is left to the discretion of the nation-states to decide whether they wish to be a part of the U.N. Since there is no common sovereign, it is often contented by scholars that the rule of law cannot meaningfully exist in the international arena. This further entails the difficulty in ascertaining what constitutes “law” in the international context since there is no “one” sovereign, and no “one” law regulating the conduct of individual nation-states.
Secondly, the Dicean concept of rule of law highlights a very narrow and process-focused approach. Such a framework will not satisfy the end objective of rule of law at the international level, with respect to acting as a constraint against the gross violation of the fundamental human rights of the individuals by the sovereign states. Therefore, the rule of law, when transposed to the international level, should not only be process-oriented but also end-oriented.
However, the nation-states, in light of the growing interaction in the globalized world and the common aim to attain international peace and order, have taken the necessary steps to address these roadblocks in the applicability of the principle internationally. Globalization has a significant contribution to the development of both domestic and international legal frameworks governing and regulating transnational transactions and activities. This has led to the development of international institutions tasked with the implementation of international law to secure peace, order and respect for basic human rights in the international community.
In today’s world, however, the significance of the rule of law stretches far beyond its application to traditional inter-state relations. The second aspect of the rule of law at the international level is the increasing attention of the international community on the impact of the international rule of law on individuals, with respect to the need to protect the inalienable human rights of the individuals. The international humanitarian law and human rights law has ensured that the basic human rights of the “individuals” are brought at the centre stage, and that every nation-state is obligated to protect them. These developments have placed legal constraints on the conduct of sovereign states in the international community and prescribed international standards which ensure that substantive aspects of justice are also catered to, at the global level.
However, this individual-focused approach to rule of law at the international level is being implemented at the domestic level, by making the domestic legal system in line with the international standards. In light of this, it is important to keep a check on the discretion provided to the national legal system regarding the substantive rules as rule of law cannot be considered effective in its true essence if the laws are unjust and oppressive.
 LTJ, http://lawtimesjournal.in/rule-of-law/ (last visited Feb. 1, 2021).
 A V DICEY, INTRODUCTION TO THE STUDY OF THE LAW OF THE CONSTITUTION (1885).
 Ruti G. Teitel, Humanity’s Law: Rule of Law for the New Global Politics, 35 CORNELL INT’L L.J. 355, 357 (2002).
 The Rio +20 Conference on Sustainable Development Outcome Document, 2012; UN Millennium Development Goals etc.
 Charles Sampford, Reconceiving the Rule of Law for a Globalizing World, GLOBALISATION AND THE RULE OF LAW 9, 10 (2005).
 UDHR, ICCPR, ICESCR, Convention against Terrorism, Human Trafficking etc.
 United Nations Human Rights Committee, the International Criminal Tribunals (ICTY, ICTR), and the International Criminal Court (ICC) etc.