At a time when authoritarianism is growing around the world and basic liberties and freedom of the press are under attack, it is important to continue to develop and strengthen the rule of law.

The rule of law is fundamental for the development of a healthy democracy, good governance and a prosperous economy. Building and embedding democracy can be a long and difficult process, however.

A cornerstone of the rule of law is education, from grammar schools through law school. As our dear friend, the late Kofi Annan, former U.N. secretary-general, often said: “For hundreds of millions of individuals, literacy is the bridge from misery to hope.”

An example of the importance of education and the rule of law played out recently at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, where the African nation of Gambia led the effort to stop the crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar that began in 2017.

The International Court ruled Jan. 23 that Myanmar must implement emergency measures to protect the Rohingya Muslims and preserve evidence of genocide. The ruling is only the first step in a long process that could take many years.

“It is indeed sad for our generation that 75 years after humankind committed itself to the words ‘never again,’ another genocide is unfolding right before our eyes,” Gambian Justice Minister Aboubacarr Tambadou said in November when the case was brought, according to the Associated Press. “Yet we do nothing.”

Isatou Touray, Gambian vice president said at the time: “We are a small country with a big voice on matters of human rights on the continent and beyond.”

Gambia’s leadership role in the case is remarkable given its relatively small size (just over 2 million people) and its recent history.

“What is extraordinary here is that Gambia, a very small country in West Africa — a half a world away from Myanmar — had only recently freed itself from the grips of a decadeslong brutal dictatorship,” said Richard Dicker, the director of the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch, according to Voice of America News. “It is so inspiring.”

Gambia has been building its foundation for the rule of law for several years, aided in part by resources provided through a unique partnership with St. Paul-based Books For Africa (BFA), its Law & Democracy Initiative and Thomson Reuters.

Books For Africa has sent more than 800,000 books to K-12 students. In addition, its Law & Democracy Initiative has supported the development and practice of the rule of law to a greater extent in Gambia than in any country per capita in Africa. Law libraries, donated by Thomson Reuters, have been sent to The University of Gambia Faculty of Law, Female Lawyers Association, Human Rights Commission, Bar Association and Legal Aid Society.

The Law & Democracy Initiative has now sent 100 law and human rights libraries to 23 countries throughout Africa. These books and libraries have had a huge impact well beyond the classroom or courtroom because they have helped improve the rule of law and transform the lives of millions of people.

Volunteering for and contributing to the Initiative has been a source of pride for thousands of Thomson Reuters employees in Minnesota, around the country and across the globe. In addition to English, law books in French and Portuguese have also been sent to law schools and other organizations.

Jote Taddese, the president of Books For Africa and a native of Ethiopia, said the volunteers have the spirit of Ubuntu: “When you place a book in the hands of an African student, you are not changing the life of just that person, but the lives of others you have not even met.”

That spirit applies whether in a law school in Gambia or in the halls of international justice in The Hague. In the memory of Kofi Annan, who was co-chairman of the Law & Democracy Initiative, we need to continue to press for expansion of the rule of law across the globe despite the recent strong headwinds of authoritarianism and oppression.

 

Walter F. Mondale is former vice president of the United States and the honorary co-chairman of Books For Africa’s Law & Democracy Initiative. Sharon Sayles Belton is former mayor of Minneapolis and vice president for strategic partnerships and community relations at Thomson Reuters.