Letter of the law: As Jordan faces external challenges, King Abdullah II seeks to reform the country from within

Jordan’s King Abdullah II has publicly thrown his weight behind calls to strengthen the rule of law in the country, but while some view the effort as a necessary catalyst for fuller reform and democratisation, others have taken a more sceptical view. In October 2016 the king released the sixth in a series of discussion papers published since 2012. The majority of the papers have focused on the rights and responsibilities of citizens, civil servants and elected officials in the development of a fully fledged parliamentary democracy.

Discussion Paper

Indeed, King Abdullah II’s paper described the rule of law as “the main underpinning of a properly functioning nation”, its acceptance as “an essential requirement for a successful democratic transformation” and “hesitation in applying the law in a just, transparent, and competent manner” as leading to “the loss of rights and weak[ening] people’s trust in state institutions”. He also noted that the rule of law “cannot be upheld unless a qualified, impartial and efficient judicial apparatus is in place”.

Just days after releasing the paper, the king established the Royal Committee for Developing the Judiciary and Enhancing the Rule Law, appointing former Prime Minister Zeid Rifai to head up a team that also includes the minister of justice, the heads of the legal committees of both the Senate and the House of Representatives, the president of the Jordan Bar Association and several other prominent players. In the appointment letter he stressed the need to build on previous achievements, including constitutional amendments enacted in 2011 and 2016, which he said “further consolidated judicial independence”.

The new paper acknowledged that in the past gaps have emerged between the government’s suggested policy and actual performance, noting that “during recent years … the level of performance and achievement in administrative agencies has not met our expectations and has not been up to what the public deserves.” Responsibility for identifying and suggesting specific policy remedies for the cause(s) of these gaps now lies with the Royal Committee, but King Abdullah II has helped guide the way forward.

The rule of law, he wrote, “is meant to ensure that principles of justice, equality, transparency and accountability are upheld by all state institutions and community members, with no exception, especially officials in leading positions”, but that unfortunately “experience has taught me that individuals accept and embrace the rule of law in principle, while in practice, some believe they are the ‘exception’ and excused from applying it.” He also singled out the corrosive effects of wasta (connections), which he said not only impede[s] the country’s progression, but also can erode achievements by undermining the values of justice, equal opportunity and good citizenship.

Structural Changes

Like other leaders seeking to institute top-down reforms, King Abdullah II faces a similar challenge in ensuring that these changes are accepted, and not just among bureaucrats. Even if many judges are committed individually to the need for reform in order to build confidence among constituencies such as the business community, the general population, minority groups, and other centres of power may prove harder to sway.

Perhaps the highest hurdle will be the environment moulded by Jordan’s position in a region destabilised by conflict and socioeconomic unrest. As the king’s paper pointed out, “it is perhaps not an understatement to say that no single country in recent history has endured as many external shocks as Jordan has,” and one consequence of these continuing threats has been the emergence of “special courts”. Chief among these is the State Security Court, whose emergency powers give it the de facto latitude to operate outside procedural rules aimed at defending the rights of defendants, including trials open to the public, adequate pre-trial access to legal counsel, full explanations of charges and the inadmissibility of evidence obtained under torture.