We have seen this in the United States at the highest level. We had experience in the United Kingdom when our judges were condemned by some MPs and by parts of the media for rulings that curbed the government’s freedom of action in the Brexit negotiations.
Some choose to misunderstand what the rule of law means. When, at the final stages of the negotiations over Hong Kong’s transfer to China, I was in Beijing meeting the Chinese foreign minister, I asked him whether China would guarantee the continuation of the rule of law in Hong Kong.
“Do not worry,” he replied. “We in China also believe in the rule of law. In China the people must obey the law. I pointed out to him that the rule of law did not just apply to the people. It also meant that the government’s actions must be subject to truly independent judges and courts.”
He not only didn’t agree with me, but he hadn’t the faintest idea what I was talking about. In China, as in Putin’s Russia, they do not have the rule of law. They have “rule by law.” The law is used by the government as a means of coercing their population and enforcing obedience. There could be no greater difference between our two sets of values.
This is where the United States and the United Kingdom have a special responsibility to the world. Both countries revere the Magna Carta. It was the foundation of their liberties. In truth, however, Magna Carta was more about the rule of law than about democracy.
The rule of law and liberal values are not just theoretical concepts. The fate of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the persecution of tens of thousands of Chinese Muslims in Xinjiang Province are testimony to what can happen when governments are indifferent to the rule of law.
We must not be ambivalent about our commitment to the rule of law—not just in other parts of the world, but also in the United States, in the United Kingdom, and throughout Europe. If we are steadfast, then Western values, which are universal values, will prevail and will win the loyalty of all mankind.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind is a British politician. He served as Britain’s defense secretary and foreign secretary during the 1990s. He gave this speech before The Atlantic Council.