The World Justice Project came out with their worldwide rankings of the rule of law last week and Venezuela’s scores were horrendous. Globally it was in the bottom 25% of all rankings and dead last in the category of criminal justice. Regionally it was in last place in six of eight categories.
In terms of “Accountable Government” Venezuela scored far lower than the rest of the region in all sub-factors, especially “absence of corruption in the judicial branch,” “independent auditing and review,” and “government officials sanctioned for misconduct.” In these last two it scored close to zero.
In terms of “Open Government and Regulatory Enforcement,” comparisons to the region are more mixed. Venezuela scored far below the regional average in the sub-factors “official information is available,” “Administrative proceedings conducted without unreasonable delay,” “Due process in administrative proceedings,” and “The government does not expropriate without adequate compensation.” However, it equaled or exceeded the regional average on two other factors, including “Laws are publicized,” and “Government regulations are effectively enforced.”
In terms of “Security and Fundamental Rights,” Venezuela trails regional averages in “Absence of crime,” “Right to life and security of the person,” and “Due process of law.” It also lags behind the region in terms of “Freedom of opinion and expression,” and “Arbitrary interference of privacy.” It is near or exceeds the regional average in “Fundamental labor rights,” “Equal treatment and absence of discrimination,” “Freedom of assembly and association,” and “Freedom of belief and religion.”
Venezuela’s worst performance is also the area in which the region performs most poorly, “Delivery of Justice.” It performs far below regional standards in the sub-factors: “Civil justice is free of corruption,” “Civil justice is free of improper government influence,” “Civil justice is not subject to unreasonable delays,” and “Civil justice is effectively enforced.” Venezuela’s criminal justice system scores far worse than the region in most of these same dimensions. It scores low on “Due process of law,” “Criminal system is free of improper government influence,” “Criminal system is free of corruption.” The weakest sub-factor for the whole region is “Correctional system is effective,” yet Venezuela here as well scores substantially lower, close to zero. Venezuela equals or exceeds the region in “People have access to affordable civil justice,” “Civil justice is free of discrimination,” and “Alternative dispute resolution services are accessible, impartial, and effective.”
On my reading the particular shape of Venezuela’s strengths and deficits suggests a government whose efforts at being progressive are undermined by two parallel but distinct dynamics: administrative incapacity, and a desire to concentrate and stay in power. On the one hand, while it has made progress in terms of reduction of discrimination and access to justice, extreme administrative dysfunction is evident in almost all dimensions of citizen security, criminal justice, corrections, criminal and civil justice. Efforts at comprehensive citizen security reform over the past couple of years show that the government realizes there is a problem and seeks improvement.
On the other hand, while it seems committed to robust freedoms of assembly and belief, experts and citizens see the government interfering in the administration of justice, threatening the freedom of expression, and lacking of accountability and transparency. The common denominator of these three characteristics is that they are classic means of concentrating and maintaining power.
These types of global reports are subject to a number of criticisms. First, they often aggregate data from multiple sources which can raise questions about the validity of their cross-national comparisons—apparent differences might result more from the nature of the data source than the underlying reality. However, this project addresses this issue by collecting its own data—no small task given it covers 97 countries.
Another criticism is that they often rely on expert opinions that could be influenced by issues of social class, thereby biasing the results in the case of leftist, nationalist governments. In the case of Venezuela, for example, the great majority of legal experts oppose the government of Hugo Chávez. However, this report balances its survey of experts with surveys of the general population carried out in three large cities. It also goes on to describe its methodology and how it constructs its indexes using this data, includes a summary of an independent audit, and a link to online piece further unpacking its procedures.
Finally, reports like this one are based on perceptions rather than measurements of underlying realities. So for example, rather than measuring the average length a case takes to get to trial, it measures perceptions of how long it takes. And perceptions are, of course, subject to any number of social processes. Nevertheless, given the difficulty of access to the underlying realities, it is not clear that there are clear alternatives for large scale cross-national comparisons. Their opinion surveys allow for detailed cross-national and regional comparisons and provide useful orientation.