Separation of Powers and Human Rights

The theory of the separation of powers traditionally differentiates between three branches of power:

  • the legislative power (parliament)
  • the executive (the government, the administration and the police)
  • and the judiciary.

Separation of powers means independence of powers with regard to each other. The three powers are separated and divided organizations of the state. No power can assume the competence or functions of another power or can interfere with another power’s business. A few examples:

  • The executive should not vote laws (the so-called “government by decree”).
  • The legislative power should not appoint or dismiss the government or the head of the executive (this should be a prerogative of the people).
  • The judiciary should be able to work without political interference from the legislative power or from the executive, and should be able to judge cases in an independent and impartial way. The judge should not be an instrument of politics or a “political worker” who executes the decisions of the executive, as was the case in Soviet Russia for example. He is subject only to the law, and the law, contrary to an order by Comrade Stalin for example, cannot be used to influence verdicts because it is general and neutral.
  • Judges should not interfere in legislation or politics (they enter the stage when the work of politics is already accomplished; they apply the law as it is voted by the legislative).

However, this is not the end of the story. Independence does not mean that a power can do as it likes without accountability. The independence is limited because one power can control, correct, rebuke, limit or stop another power if there is an abuse of power or a violation of rights.

Some interference is necessary. Separation does not mean isolation. Powers are separated precisely because then they can check each other. If all power is concentrated in the same person or institution, then this power cannot be checked. There is no higher power than the state and hence the state must control, limit and correct itself (the “international community” is still very weak). If power has to limit itself, then it has to be divided into different parts. There must be powers and counter-powers, checks and balances. Every power moderates the other powers because every power holds the reins to force the other powers in a certain direction. A citizen must be able to go to one power in order to claim redress or compensation for violations of rights by other powers. Power protects against power and power can contradict and correct power.

Violations of human rights by one part of the state must be corrected by another part, otherwise human rights remain words without reality. Judges can control the laws of the legislature and the actions of the executive. If they find that these laws or actions are incompatible with the human rights included in the Constitution or in an international treaty, then the judges can declare these laws to be invalid or these actions to be unlawful, even if these laws and actions are supported by a democratic majority (which is normally the case in a democracy).

The power of the legislative, the executive and the majority is limited. The judiciary makes sure that both the legislative power and the executive act according to the highest law of the land, which is, after all, also an expression of the will of the majority (at least in an ideal democracy, because an ideal democracy allows the citizens to vote on the Constitution and on international treaties). Human rights and the Constitution can be used against the legislator in order to counteract the tyranny of the majority (also known as democratic oppression). When judges do this, they engage in what is called “judicial review“. The legislator can be wrong and laws can be oppressive. The law is more than just the will of the legislator. A valid law has to conform to certain requirements at the level of content, independently of the will of the legislator. A law cannot be anything, otherwise the rule of law would be a meaningless concept.

I mentioned a moment ago that the judiciary should not interfere with politics or legislation. However, is judicial review of legislation not a part of legislation? Controlling and invalidating laws, overruling the legislative power by way of a veto-right, creating a certain coherence in legislation, making sure that ordinary laws conform to the higher law (the Constitution), is this not legislation? And is it not legislation enacted by a non-elected minority which imposes its will on the majority of the people as it is represented in the legislative power, and which takes its decisions outside of the public debate? Should not an ideal democracy reject judicial review? In other words: is it not impossible for an ideal democracy to protect the rights and freedoms of the minority?

These questions are based on a false hypothesis. When a judge controls the conformity of an ordinary law and a higher law, he does not engage in legislation. He or she only makes sure that the higher law is strictly applied and respected. And as the higher law is the supreme expression of the will of the people – in an ideal democracy, the people can vote the Constitution – a judge only makes sure that the will of the people is strictly executed. There is nothing undemocratic about this and it has nothing to do with legislation. A judge who is confronted with a law which contradicts the Constitution cannot apply this law because otherwise he or she would be acting in an unlawful manner. The higher law has priority over the lower law. A lower law has to conform to the higher law, otherwise it is invalid and non-existing, “null and void”. A judge can declare the illegality of a law and can destroy a law without engaging in legislation.

The judge remains subject to the law and is not above the law or above the legislator when he or she invalidates a law. The judge remains subject to the higher law. Judicial review does not imply that the judiciary is more important or more powerful than the legislative power or than the will of the people. It only implies that the higher law is more important than the lower law and the higher legislator is superior to the lower legislator. Judicial review does not imply an exaggerated or a predominant political or legislative role for the judiciary compared to the role of the legislative power, at least as long as we consider the framing of a Constitution to be part of the legislative power. A judge can never decide on fundamental social problems or political conflicts. He or she can only apply the law, first the higher law and then the lower law.

Human rights possess a threefold significance: they are themselves standards of behavior; they constitute criteria for assessing the lawfulness of other rules (since they override all other norms, which are null and void in case of conflict); [and] they embody “instructions and guidelines” … for the creation and development of other rules. Antonio Cassese.

Individuals whose rights are violated can coerce the state – even though most of the time it is the other way around – but only on the condition that there is a separation of powers and that one power can be used against another.

However, this means that judges should not be predominantly in favor of one political party or one political philosophy, because otherwise they will review the laws from one and the same political perspective. If the judiciary is predominantly conservative, for example, then it will treat liberal laws in a very critical way and it will tend to systematically invalidate these laws because of their conservative interpretation of the Constitution.

Judicial control of the constitutionality of laws and government actions is only one example of a power limiting another. Here are some other examples:

  • A judicial verdict applies the law and is therefore dependent on the law. A judge cannot decide what is contrary to the law, which means that the legislator de facto limits the actions of the judiciary.
  • The executive is accountable to and is controlled by the legislative power. It has to give account of the way in which it has applied the laws. However, the legislative power cannot dismiss the government as a consequence of this control, at least as long as the government is directly elected, which is the case in an ideal democracy.
  • A president often has a veto-right and can block certain laws voted by the legislative power. This is acceptable on the condition that the president is directly elected.
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8 thoughts on “Separation of Powers and Human Rights”

  1. […] For example: the state should not only avoid torturing its citizens, it should also actively protect and help those citizens who are tortured, most commonly by some part of the state but perhaps also by fellow citizens. This means that abstention and forbearance on the part of the state, no matter how important, are not enough. The state also has a duty to act in order to protect rights. And if human rights require that the state abstains, then the state should be actively engaged in enforcing its own abstention. (Needless to say that this implies a separation of powers). […]

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