The Bangkok Dialogue on the Rule of Law, November 2013 “Rule of law” sounds as exciting as a vanilla milk shake. Not so. In September 2012, the United Nations convened a high-level meeting of the General Assembly to discuss the centrality of the rule of law at both the domestic and international levels as a foundation for the broader work of the UN.

One of the outcomes of that meeting was a call through a resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly “to develop further linkages between the rule of law and the three main pillars of the United Nations: peace and security, human rights and development.”

Before turning to that final impact on development, let us be candid: various UN programs devoted to the rule of law have failed to have the transformative impact so desperately needed by so many around the world. Global Trust for Rule of Law that could achieve through cross-cutting partnerships what intergovernmental institutions alone have not and cannot.

Like the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, a Global Trust for Rule of Law could bring together a diverse board of donors, public officials, civil society representatives, and legal experts to develop a strategy for building the capacity of developing nations to implement rule of law, and thereby help unlock the unrealized potential of marginalized persons worldwide.

Now we come to the subject of development, holistically understood. It is this interest in turning human rights on paper into human rights in practice that brought me to Bangkok last week to speak and participate in the Bangkok Dialogue on the Rule of Law, which convened a cross-section of precisely these stakeholders in order to discuss a path forward for the post-2015 development agenda.

Indeed, with the 2015 target date for the original Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) just around the corner, it is clear that much work remains to be done to strengthen the rule of law worldwide if the MDGs are to be achieved in full.

To that end, the Report of the United Nations High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda observed that “freedom from fear, conflict and violence is the most fundamental human right” and therefore “responsive and legitimate institutions should encourage the rule of law.”

This is what makes the conversation I joined in Bangkok so urgent. The Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra convened the meeting. Parent of the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine Gareth Evans of Australia and current UN Assistant Secretary General Sarah Cliffe stressed the need for rule of law in cases when people fear for their basic safety. And UN High Commissioner Navi Pillay of South Africa pointedly said remotely from Geneva that “rule of law without human rights is an empty shell.” Most powerfully, Bhutan’s Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay, who exuded rectitude personified in conversation with me, went further in his address: he spoke of his country’s taking to logical next step to institutionalize rule of law—democracy.

I spoke in the concluding session of the conference and received an audience with the Thai Princess and Ambassador to the UN agencies in Vienna, Bajrakitiyabha Mahidol, an energetic young woman like the Prime Minister who has put her leverage behind an initiative at the Ministry of Justice to promote rule of law in the MDGs. I stressed three things.

First, promising norm creation and spiffy conferences need to be followed by tangible will- and capacity-building to deliver access to justice and economic opportunity to marginalized groups.

Second, on the verge of a downgrade next year to the lowest State Department ranking on fighting the problem, Thailand needs to do just that on human trafficking.

And third, civil society organizations are not mere carping critics but vital partners to law enforcement to extend access to justice, like the Labor Rights Promotion Network (LPN) which introduced me six years ago in this very part of Thailand—in Samut Sakon—to young migrant women subjected to forced labor and cruel beatings in a seafood processing factory just because they sought a better life than in the Burma of six years ago. The Princess heard me on this, although she heard all the more the Bhutanese Prime Minister speak of an enlightened monarch pressing for rule of law and robust democracy as keys to development.

If human rights are to be more than rhetoric—if they are to be made real in the lives of ordinary people—then we need to have a broader discussion about the role of the rule of law in securing precisely those better standards of life “in larger freedom” which the UN Charter committed all its members.

Human Rights and Dignity