2019: A Year in Review – A Challenging Time for the Rule of Law

Maria L. Hodge. Maria Hodge is a J.D. Candidate (2021) at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, with interests in federal and state legislative policy, international law, and technology law. She is an IRLS Fellow during the 2019-2020 academic year.

As a new year begins, it is a good time to look back on the challenges faced by proponents of the rule of law and human rights around the world.  Last year saw the development of new and ongoing trends that have challenged the integrity of our domestic and international institutions.  In the year ahead, these challenges will likely require rule of law solutions, such as increased protections for fundamental human rights, stability for the judicial branch and other government institutions, and the application of anti-corruption policies

Democratic Erosion

In the past year, several countries, notably Poland and Hungary, have continued to move towards authoritarianism. On December 10th, this trend was officially recognized by the EU’s Justice Commissioner, Belgian Didier Reynders, who condemned Poland and Hungary’s hostility towards their respective judicial branches and limitations imposed on democratic freedoms.  

As the year concluded with no positive changes, the EU will likely need to continue to condemn this trend and possibly introduce sanctions to try to induce a reduction in attacks on these countries’ judicial branches throughout the next year. 

Election Interference

It is clear that foreign election meddling occurred during the 2016 United States presidential election. This is part of a trend that continued around the world in 2019. After the recent elections in the United Kingdom (UK), evidence of meddling was uncovered despite an  attempt by the current UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, to conceal reports of Russian interference

Election meddling will likely continue to be a critical concern for the US in 2020, especially in light of the upcoming presidential elections in November. Possible solutions to address this threat to the rule of law include regulating ads on social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, which were strategically used to influence the 2016 election, and increasing public awareness of election interference

Ongoing Conflicts

Several areas of the world have seen ongoing conflicts, including eastern Ukraine and Afghanistan. In December, peace talks occurred between the Ukrainian and Russian Presidents, resulting in an agreement for natural gas transit and the exchange of prisoners.  This agreement is in stark contrast to the recent state of diplomatic relations between the two countries, which has been fraught since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014. The agreement is seen as a positive step towards de-escalation of hostilities in eastern Ukraine. While this agreement is unlikely to end hostilities, it could serve as an important trust-building exercise and set the foundation for future negotiations.

In Afghanistan, US airstrikes increased in 2019 despite peace talks between the US and the Taliban. Recently, the Taliban agreed to a temporary ceasefire with the US; however this is only a temporary measure and will likely require further negotiations before a long term peace agreement can be signed.

Environmental Crises

In the past year, several major reports on climate change were published indicating the current state of the climate crisis, its connection to human causes, and its current and impending impact on our global environment. Following these reports, the United Nations held a Climate Change Summit in September, which included speeches by Greta Thunberg and other activists.  However, this activism resulted in few accomplishments as a result of the summit. In particular, the US and China notably failed to take strong action towards mitigating the effects of climate change despite the growing demand for a rapid response.

The development of our collective understanding of climate change was coupled with several severe weather events around the globe, including a heatwave across Europe in July,  forest fires in California, flooding in Iran, and cyclones in Mozambique. These events are likely to grow in their frequency and severity in the year ahead and will require countries to take swift action to mitigate damage caused. 

Global Protest Movements

Finally, the past year cannot be discussed without mentioning the protests that have been taking place throughout the world, including in Hong Kong, Chile, India, Iran, and France.  These protest movements occurred in response to a wide range of issues, including government oppression, the election of undemocratic leaders, and unpopular social reforms. Protests are often led by students and young activists, starting peacefully, but in some instances have escalated in response due to issues such as hostile police tactics. 

One particularly notable protest movement is in Hong Kong, where millions of people in a city of 7.5 million have taken to the streets since June 9th. Protests began in response to an unpopular extradition bill introduced by Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the leader of Hong Kong who is backed by the People’s Republic of China. The Hong Kong government, with support from China, met these protests with arrests and the use of rubber bullets and tear gas. Although the extradition bill is no longer being considered, protests have continued in an ongoing attempt to push for additional democratic reforms. The protests in Hong Kong have inspired other, similar movements around the world, which have begun implementing similar tactics to avoid suppression by government forces, such as using social media to coordinate protests and wearing masks to avoid detection by facial recognition cameras 


The past year has seen an increase in environmental harm and trends towards authoritarianism. However, there have also been resistance movements led by citizen activists around the world, demanding accountability for domestic and international institutions and increased protections for human rights. With additional efforts to protect human rights and deter domestic corruption, there is hope for positive change through continued political activism and diplomatic initiatives in the new year.

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