President's Message

ABA Rule of Law Initiative helps advance legal reforms in more than 50 countries

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Photo of ABA President, William Hubbard, by Marc Hauser.

Lewis Powell was elected president of the American Bar Association in 1964, several years before he served on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1972 to 1987.

In 1965, Powell wrote in these pages about the ABA’s effort, launched in 1958, to explore “what lawyers can do of a practical character to advance the rule of law among nations.” Reflecting on the state of international affairs at the time, he concluded that “the only viable alternative to the rule of force is the rule of law.”

What Powell and his Cold War-era contemporaries recognized half a century ago holds true today in our globalized society: Our work to advance the rule of law cannot stop at our borders. Fractures in the rule of law have contributed to nearly every costly international challenge our nation faces, including health pandemics, migrants fleeing poverty, violent extremism, and illicit trade of weapons, drugs and human beings.

Countries with a fair and predictable rule of law are more likely to sustain healthy relations with one another. This promotes security and creates economic opportunities not only abroad, but also here at home.

The call for lawyers to do something “of a practical character” to advance the rule of law presented itself 25 years ago when the fall of the Berlin Wall led to a host of new nations yearning for justice under law. In 1990, the ABA established its first rule of law programs, now known collectively as the Rule of Law Initiative. At the time, ROLI’s programs were exclusively in Central and Eastern Europe.

Today, with more than $40 million in annual funding from governmental and private donors, ROLI programs bring staff and consultants together with the pro bono expertise of ABA members to advance legal reforms in more than 50 countries.

Throughout the world and often behind the scenes, ROLI works to support the reform efforts of local colleagues drawn from judiciaries, bar associations, law schools, ministries of justice and civil society.

In China, for example, the ABA shares its legal expertise to support critical criminal law reforms, combat domestic violence, and support public interest lawyers in their efforts to implement new environmental laws and promote civil rights among marginalized communities. ROLI is an essential advocate for the rule of law in a country that is playing a dominant geopolitical role in the 21st century.

The ABA also has begun dialogue with members of the legal community in Saudi Arabia to cooperate in advancing legal reform. Other nations that we assist in the Middle East include Morocco, where ROLI works with community groups to promote gender parity and the right of citizens to initiate legislation.

Our efforts in Africa include the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo, where ROLI supports legal aid clinics, police training, and mobile courts to hold accountable perpetrators of widespread sexual violence and end a culture of impunity that has fueled two decades of conflict.

In the Philippines, ROLI is helping automate court records in a project to reduce case backlogs, curb corruption and strengthen the judiciary as a critical building block for economic development. Closer to home, ROLI is helping prosecutors, law enforcement and judges in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras respond to crippling levels of crime and violence with critical new forensic capabilities.

ROLI works closely with local partners to design and implement strategies that are both responsive to their needs and sustainable in the long run. We do not solely offer “American” solutions. We all stand to learn and benefit from these collaborations. Together we must build a global rule-of-law movement that promises a more peaceful and prosperous world.

Learn more about the ABA Rule of Law Initiative at

This article initially appeared in the March issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “Justice on a Global Scale: ABA Rule of Law Initiative helps advance legal reforms in more than 50 countries.”

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