Imagine slapping a government on a grocer's scale and measuring how its top leaders, officials and judges are behaving.
Prominent experts from 95 nations say their new "Rule of Law Index" unveiled Thursday does just that — and could help the U.S. and others accused of abuse and compromise in the pursuit of terrorists recommit to basic principles of law and human rights.
"The so-called war on terror has brought with it subtle changes. We talk about 'coercive interrogation' instead of what it really is: torture," former Irish President Mary Robinson told participants at the World Justice Forum in Vienna.
"We face the new 'normal,' which must be confronted," she said. "For the majority of the world's citizens, the rules of the game are fundamentally unfair."
Potentially, the prototype index could be used to increase pressure on nations such as Zimbabwe, thrust into international isolation after sham elections, or Myanmar, where the ruling junta's arrogant and ineffective decisions after a deadly cyclone endangered millions of lives.
But its architects insist the index is part of a broader effort to ensure everyone from farmers and fishermen to parliamentarians and prime ministers benefits from the rule of law.
Not 'blame and shame'
"We are not in the blame and shame business," said William H. Neukom, president of the American Bar Association, a founding member of the World Justice Project organizing this week's conference.
Countries and communities committed to accountable governments, good laws, effective due process and ethical lawyers, prosecutors and judges "are less vulnerable to the horrors of the human condition," Neukom said.
Although the U.S. is widely held up as a model of democracy and civil rights, it has been severely criticized for abuses at its detention center for terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and its practice of "extraordinary rendition": the CIA's transfer of suspects to other countries for interrogation and — some allege — torture.
"The U.S. has a proud history ... but there have been failures in abiding by the rule of law," Neukom acknowledged.
Profiles, not rankings
Organizers said the Rule of Law Index is still being built, but within three years should offer profiles on 100 nations. The World Justice Project has spent $1.1 million on the initiative over the past two years.
It will not rank countries on a scale. Instead, it will offer comprehensive snapshots of how governments and court systems are performing in a number of key areas, based on numerous interviews with local experts and with 1,000 randomly selected citizens in any given nation.
Among the 13 key factors and 50 other variables used to measure a country's behavior are corruption, respect for property rights, government officials' accountability to the law, access to services and the existence — or not — of an impartial judiciary.
Officials dubbed Thursday's prototype "Version 1.0" and said it would be tweaked to improve its usefulness in helping to determine whether a nation is protecting or chipping away at basic legal concepts.
Straying from the rule of law can inflict lasting scars on a country, warned Emil Constantinescu, a former president of Romania, which shook off decades of communism under the late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989.
"The rule of law was abolished for almost half a century, and instead, the terror of law was implemented," Constantinescu said.
Overcoming that legacy, he said, has proved to be "a struggle not only for a day or a year, but for a lifetime."
No country is perfect
The new index was developed with help from justice experts from Yale University and Stanford University as well as from judges and lawyers in The Hague, Netherlands, home to the World Court, the International Criminal Court and the U.N. war crimes tribunal for former Yugoslavia.
Organizers conducted field tests in Argentina, Australia, Colombia, Spain, Sweden and the U.S. Independent researchers did the same in four cities: Chandigarh, India; Lagos, Nigeria; Santiago, Chile; and New York City.
They declined to rank the four, saying their findings were preliminary. Informally, New York appeared to come out on top.
But no country is perfect, experts conceded.
"No society, however advanced in other respects, has ever attained — let alone sustained — a perfect realization of the rule of law," the World Justice Project said in a 77-page report outlining the index.
The World Justice Project hopes the results will help it constructively engage rogue or lagging nations "in a relentless and long-term way," Neukom said.
"We think it's time for action rather than words," he said.