Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

December 2013

Liberty and Justice for All: Behind the Scenes at the 2013 World Justice Forum

By Christopher Durso, Executive Editor

What does an international conference built around the rule of law look like? Convene attended the fourth World Justice Forum in The Hague, Netherlands, to find out.

Rule of law” is one of those phrases everyone uses, and when they do, they mean something much more general and vaguely understood than what the select cadre of professionals who actually work in that area mean. When you say “rule of law,” you may be talking about the legal system, or civilized society. But for thousands of people working in a variety of fields around the world, the rule of law is something both more specific and more sweeping — “the underlying framework of rules and rights that make prosperous and fair societies possible,” according to the World Justice Project (WJP). “...The rule of law helps people and communities thrive. Effective rule of law helps reduce corruption, improve public health, enhance education, lift people from poverty, and protect them from injustices and dangers large and small.”

SEE ALSO: Going Dutch: The Hague and 3 More Holland Meeting Destinations 

It's abstract and idealistic. And every other year, more or less, WJP tries to make it tangible and actionable at the World Justice Forum, a four-day conference that Nancy Ward, WJP's chief engagement officer, describes as “a global gathering of practitioners from all different levels of experience in many different professional sectors who come together to design programs to strengthen the rule of law and to deepen their understanding about what the rule of law means.” 

World Justice Forum IV was held at the World Forum convention center in The Hague, Netherlands, on July 8-11. Convene attended as part of a trip organized by NBTC Holland Marketing, and found a conference that's very serious about doing things by the book.


Everythingyou needed to know about the ambitions of the World Justice Forum and its attendees could be wrapped up in the purposeful hush that fell throughout the World Forum late on Tuesday afternoon, July 9. The conference had kicked off that morning — after an opening reception the night before — with a keynote panel on “Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Importance of the Rule of Law to Various Sectors,” moderated by Maria Livanos Cattaui, the former secretary-general of the International Chamber of Commerce. Panelists included U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy and Thabo Makgoba, the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town.

During welcoming remarks before the keynote panel, WJP Chairman William C. Hubbard, a Columbia, S.C.-based attorney who is president-elect of the American Bar Association, told attendees: “The success of this forum is dependent on you. We need your thoughts, your ideas, your energy to make this successful, so that we can work together to strengthen the rule of law worldwide.... [The forum] has the promise of being something that can really change the world and strengthen the rule of law in a way that benefits all of those around the world, including those who are the least among us.”

Hubbard was followed by William H. Neukom, WJP’s founder, president, and CEO, who dedicated World Justice Forum IV to Nelson Mandela, himself “initially the victim of the lack of rule of law during the apartheid regime,” and today “a beacon for all of us, is he not, of the future of the rule of law and its foundational importance to functional and fair communities around the world.” Translating those ideals into reality requires attention to process as well as vision, and at this conference, that meant spending a lot of time in Justice Incubator Working Sessions. “What is incubation of these practical programs?” Neukom said. “It's finding ways to have folks communicate and collaborate in the design and to be prepared for the execution of these practical programs.”

The keynote panel was followed by two more general sessions — “The Rule of Law Around the World and Why It Matters: Findings From the WJP Rule of Law Index” and “Tunisian Transitional Process: Ingredients of Success and Fears of Failure” — and then, after lunch, five concurrent panel discussions on everything from “Access to Health: A Better Life for Women and Girls” to “Sport and the Rule of Law: Level Playing Fields.” And now, late in the day, it was time for the Justice Incubator groups. There were 13 of them, each meeting in a different room in the World Forum, each room quiet and serious, one or two dozen people or more discussing a specific challenge related to the rule of law and how it might be solved. “Access to Information” was directly across the hall from “Poverty and the Rule of Law.” Just up the way was “Post-Conflict Justice” and, past that, “Environmental Conflict Resolution” and “Formal and Informal Justice.”

A Justice Incubator group in action.

Over the next three days, participants would meet with their Justice Incubator groups for a total of five hours. “They'll come out of the back end of that with practical programs that they'll report out to the full plenary [on Thursday afternoon],” said Ward, whom Convene talked to both a few weeks before World Justice Forum IV and in person during the conference, “and then we'll go out after the forum and follow up with them to get those programs in place.”

SEE ALSO: One on One With WJP's Nancy Ward

Popular and well attended — at the end of our interview on site, Ward had to excuse herself to go find more chairs for “Poverty and the Rule of Law” — the Justice Incubator program is a signature component of the World Justice Forum, stemming directly from WJP's mission to make the world a better place, and allowing the program to involve and engage a very diverse attendee population. “We do that by creating an opportunity for some of them to share their work,” Ward said, “and for others to think about how to become part of that movement and how to really, practically be a change agent. So, they get to actually get their hands dirty and do the work. That creates this unique energy that really provides the momentum in which this forum has grown and continues to be relevant and of service.”


World Justice Forum IV had a total of 550 attendees, representing 107 countries and 25 different professional fields, with a few main concentrations. “We invite people from government, civil society, academia, the media, and business,” Ward said. “These are practitioners. Primarily we'd like to call them change agents. That's the way we go out and recruit and identify invitees. They're people who are working on the ground and at the policy level. And each of those buckets, if you will, has different kinds of people in them. So, business we could think about in terms of professional-services firms, like lawyers and that kind of thing. Or we could think about it in terms of major international corporations, like Shell or Microsoft or Google or HP.”

Creating a program that speaks to everyone in those buckets isn't easy. WJP's solution is to keep things as concrete and hands-on as it can — not just with the Justice Incubator Working Sessions, but with the 15 concurrent panels offered during the conference. That approach both helps ground a potentially esoteric conversation and gives people in the audience a sense of how they might apply the speakers’ insights and experience to their own work. “We do have these topical panel sessions, and those speakers are actually invited to come and talk about the practical programs and the practical realities of what they're implementing in whatever their chosen field or their chosen discipline

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