WASHINGTON — The U.S. lags behind western Europe in access to civil justice and legal assistance, according to an international survey released Monday that also raised questions over whether U.S. police forces treat all citizens equally.
The results of the survey by the World Justice Project, an advocacy group that promotes the rule of law, also signaled that some Middle Eastern countries continue to rank relatively low in certain areas, a key factor in the region's popular protests.
"Without the rule of law, medicines do not reach health facilities due to corruption, women in rural areas remain unaware of their rights, people are killed in criminal violence, and economic growth is stifled," William Neukom, the founder of the group, said in a statement announcing its second annual Rule of Law Index.
Earlier this year, the project polled 66,000 people across 66 countries, asking questions that covered eight areas including corruption, security, and access to the legal system. The researchers also interviewed 2,000 experts around the world to compile what they called a comprehensive picture of whether citizens believe their governments adhere to the rule of law.
A fair legal system provides a critical backbone and infrastructure for countries — ensuring that they run effectively, citizens get a fair shake and companies can operate under predictable rules, the researchers said.
Sweden and Norway topped the charts in many of the categories studied.
While the U.S. scored high in many areas — including checks and balances in the legal system, civil liberties, freedom of expression and independence of the judiciary — it trailed western European countries in such areas as legal access for low-income communities and ethnic minorities and also scored low in perceptions of whether police treat people of different backgrounds equally.
"In the United States, rich individuals take their disputes to courts, whereas poor and low-income individuals normally don't use the formal dispute resolution mechanisms. They simply either negotiate, do nothing or resort to violence in the worst case scenario," said Juan Botero, the director of the index.
Rebekah Diller, deputy director of the Justice Program at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice, who wasn't affiliated with the report, echoed Botero's concerns about the U.S. legal system.
"We have suffered from the death by a thousand cuts in terms of our civil legal services programs that are designed to help folks who face legal issues," she said.
"This is a country of equal justice for all. ... As a nation, we're not meeting our responsibilities."
The report also covered five Middle Eastern countries, including Iran, which scored nearly at the bottom on fundamental rights and limits on government powers. While the five Mideast nations generally scored well when it came to combating crime, the report found that high levels of corruption, lack of freedom of speech and governmental openness were major concerns.
The findings echoed experts who have said that the much-heralded Arab Spring protests this year were sparked in part by major shortcomings in the rule of law and mistreatment of ordinary citizens across the region. The protests started after an impoverished Tunisian street vendor lit himself on fire after an altercation with local police.
"Widespread corruption which goes unpunished and the selective administration of justice is very much part of the sense of alienation and anger which people all across the region felt," said Marc Lynch, a professor of Middle East politics at George Washington University.
"It really did feed into the pervasive sense that people were being abused and they had no recourse."
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