Executive interpretation within the UN system: the rule of law as a means to implement UN norms and standards

Rule of law assistance has been an integral part of UN activities over the past fifteen years. While the concept has experienced some push-back from member states, especially visible in the negotiations of Sustainable Development Goal 16, where the term “rule of law” was demoted from goal- to target-level, it remains an important component of UN field operations. This contribution explores how “rule of law assistance” is understood by UN civil servants, with a focus specifically on the substantive standards that it promotes. I argue that rule of law assistance is a valuable tool for the UN as an international organization to promote the domestic implementation of legal standards that were negotiated under UN auspices, irrespective of their formal legal value. This promotion of “UN norms and standards” persists, despite political contestation of the term “rule of law”, and it has been pushed by UN international civil servants through what I label “executive interpretation”.