Speeches and Interviews
Roundtable on the Role of Supreme Courts in Protecting Human Rights at the National Level
Thursday, September 22, 2011 at 10:00 a.m.
Supreme Court of Ukraine
Good morning. Speaker Lytvyn, chief justices, justices, judicial experts and guests, I am very pleased to be with you today. Thank you for including an American voice in this conference. We support whole heartedly the goals of this conference.
A fair, independent, and accountable judicial system is the cornerstone of a democratic society and the most important guarantor of human rights. When Ukraine ratified the European Convention on Human Rights in 1997, it committed itself to fair and public judicial proceedings conducted within a reasonable period of time.
We in the United States recognize how critical concepts such as equal application of the law and the fair and expedient resolution of disputes by a qualified and independent judiciary are to our own country’s economic and democratic development. Throughout much of our history, our Supreme Court was responsible for some of the most important legal, economic and social progress in the U.S.
In my lifetime, the U.S. Supreme Court – as the court of last resort for its citizens – led our country dramatically forward, through its decisions ending legal protection for racial segregation, protecting rights of freedom of association, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, rights of privacy, and equal protection of the laws to all citizens.
In the area of criminal justice, it was the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1960s –and not our Congress or the Executive Branch – that first held that indigent defendants are entitled to competent legal counsel provided by the state so they can assert their rights, and that persons detained by police must be advised of their rights against self-incrimination and to counsel because of the overwhelming power of the state against a detained person. And the Supreme Court ensured that these rules would be followed by deciding that evidence obtained in violation of these rights could not be used against an accused in criminal proceedings.
Our Founding Fathers, who wrote the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the Constitution two hundred years ago, declared in those documents that human beings are born with rights, and the purpose of government is to protect and enhance those rights. They understood that government must safeguard the physical well-being of people and their property, which is why virtually all legal systems have criminal laws and governmental officials to enforce these rights and protect people from each other. But the framers of our Constitution went further and asked: who would protect the people from the government? Their answer was to establish an independent judiciary and appeals court to stand between the state, in all its power, and the individual citizen.
This is the essence of democracy and is the exact opposite of the way the judiciary and the legal system is used in authoritarian and totalitarian states, where its purpose is to protect the state from individuals. Moreover, on a practical level, an independent judiciary promotes transparency, by requiring the state to provide reasons and justifications for its actions as it applies the law in particular cases.
I feel sure in talking to those of you gathered here, that you well-understand that while it is possible to have perfectly worded laws and procedures, consistent with every international norm, they are just words without an independent judiciary willing and able to administer them neutrally, with due regard for the dignity and rights of the individual.
Thus, a qualified and independent judiciary is critical to the protection of the fundamental human rights of Ukraine’s citizens and to Ukraine’s continued democratic and economic development.
That is why the United States Government, through the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Department of Justice, has been proud to support judicial and legal reforms, including especially USAID’s Ukraine Rule of Law project. We have worked closely with our colleagues from the European Union and Council of Europe.
Since 2006, the project has worked with a variety of Ukrainian governmental and non-governmental partners to promote an independent and accountable judiciary, and support policy and legislative reform in rule of law.
Our longstanding partnership in support of judicial reform has led to some significant achievements. Perhaps the most significant was the adoption of the new Law on the Judiciary and Status of Judges last July.
We were pleased to see that many of the reforms we have supported through the Ukraine Rule of Law project were codified in the law, including fair, transparent and merit-based judicial selection and disciplinary procedures, the random assignment of cases, and the posting of judicial disciplinary decisions and a judicial misconduct complaint form on the Internet.
The project also assisted judges in applying the European Convention on Human Rights and the case law of the European Court of Human Rights by supporting the development and implementation of judicial training programs and training materials with the National School of Judges of Ukraine.
However, while these are significant achievements, the Venice Commission and other international experts have noted that further improvements are necessary to ensure that Ukraine’s judicial reform is consistent with international norms.
Earlier this year, President Yanukovych responded to the concerns raised by the international community by ordering that the legal framework related to the judiciary be amended in line with Venice Commission recommendations. This would represent an important next step in advancing judicial reform in Ukraine.
However, other proposed amendments to the Law on Judiciary and Status of Judges do not advance judicial reform in a manner consistent with international norms. In particular, we feel it is critical that all judicial reform initiatives preserve and further the independence of the judiciary and its institutions, including especially the Supreme Court, whose role and status under the new law are a particular concern of the Venice Commission and other international observers, including the U.S.
Bolstering the role of the Supreme Court as the ultimate arbiter of the rights and freedoms of Ukrainians is critical. The events of the past few months have further highlighted the need for an independent judiciary oriented around the defense of personal rights and freedoms and for a Supreme Court that can defend and ensure that independence, as the U.S. Supreme Court does in my own country.
I commend your efforts to strengthen the judiciary in line with international and European Standards and promise that the U.S. will remain committed to Ukraine’s democratic development, including especially strengthening the rule of law, and will continue to stand ready to support Ukrainian-led reform efforts.
I wish you a successful meeting and a fruitful exchange of experiences and successes in advancing the development of the judiciary. Thank you for your attention and partnership.