SCHOLARS: Participants closed their year at U.S. law schools by gathering in Washington. (Diego M. Radzinschi)
Mahmood Nawaz has worked for international organizations pushing for democratic reform in his home country of Afghanistan. A lawyer, he believes that working within the government is the best way to effect the rule of law — no small feat considering its history of Taliban rule, official corruption and tribal customs whereby local councils mete out justice.
To that end, he spent the past academic year in Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law’s LL.M. program, studying anticorruption, human rights and the rule of law. The degree will help him secure a government job back home and give him added legitimacy within the legal system, he said.
“Back in Afghanistan, the laws are seen as a barrier, as a problem,” Nawaz said. “I was discussing with my friends that we collectively can help people understand that the laws and regulations are there to protect them.”
Nawaz was one of 11 Afghan lawyers brought to the United States for a free year of legal studies by the Public-Private Partnership for Justice Reform in Afghanistan, a partnership between the U.S. Department of State, law firms and law schools that aims to support the rule of law by training young Afghan lawyers. The scholars, as they are known in the program, have their work cut out for them: Afghanistan ranked second-to-last on this year’s World Justice Project Rule of Law Index, which measures how people in 99 countries experience the rule of law. Only Venezuela ranked lower.
But the program aims to change that, and leaders expect to bring even more Afghan lawyers to the U.S. next year — 15.
“It’s our ambition that over the next few years we will have 100 or 200 highly educated young people working on the ground to improve the justice system in Afghanistan,” said Jones Day partner Peter Garvin, who sits on the program’s executive committee. “It has the potential for a very large impact back in Afghanistan.”
The program got its start in 2007 and also hosts training sessions for Afghan lawyers, judges and government officials; publishes the Rule of Law Journal at Herat University; and sponsors a Rule of Law and Human Rights Center also at Herat University. The scholars program has emerged as the effort’s centerpiece and, as of the end of the last academic year, had helped 35 Afghan lawyers obtain masters of laws degrees. (Separately, the State Department supports Afghan legal education programs at the University of Washington School of Law and Stanford Law School.) Officials plan to continue these efforts even as the U.S. military draws down its forces in Afghanistan.
The law schools waive tuition while the State Department covers travel and living expenses, spending between $600,000 and $800,000 annually, according to department officials. Individuals and law firms including Arent Fox, Jones Day and Manatt, Phelps & Phillips also contribute financially. In addition to Ohio Northern, Chapman University Dale E. Fowler School of Law; Wake Forest University School of Law; and Washington & Lee University School of Law hosted student this year, and five additional schools are expected to join the program next year.
The scholars are hand-selected from a pool of more than 100 applicants. If they do not return to Afghanistan, they must repay the costs of their LL.M.s.
Administrators seek candidates with firm grasps on English and sincere desires to advance Afghanistan’s legal system, said Becky Lee Katz, executive director of the Friends of the Public-Private Partnership for Justice Reform in Afghanistan, a nonprofit organization formed in 2009 to raise private money and implement the program.
“If they say they want to advocate for human rights or women’s right, we ask, ‘What have you been doing thus far?’ We want to know they’re serious,” Katz said.
Waheedullah Siddiqi had worked for a year as a legal adviser to the European Union mission targeting police and government corruption when he applied to be a scholar. International reports suggest corruption consumes as much as 30 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product. “Ohio Northern’s LL.M. program has a course on anticorruption, and we compared countries and their efforts to fight corruption,” Siddiqi said. “I needed the LL.M. to further grow and get a government job, so that we can change government institutions.”
The scholars assume a certain level of risk, given the powerful forces opposing reform both within the Afghan government and antigovernment insurgency, according to Tom Umberg, the program’s cochairman and a former military lawyer now in private practice.
“They are unbelievably courageous and idealistic,” he said. “They are putting the national interest above their own personal interest because coming to the U.S. to study can be dangerous for them.”
Female attorneys face even higher hurdles, given their relatively small numbers, limited access to education and entrenched cultural expectations.
“For sure it is dangerous,” said Nooria Sallam, a women’s rights advocate who studied at Chapman University. “But we have to do something to bring change. I am the only female lawyer in my province and my village. There are many harmful traditional practices against women, and in order to eliminate those practices I have to work and raise legal awareness.”
Several scholars were impressed by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who met with them privately following a court tour in mid-May, according to Sallam, who said she would love to see a woman on Afghanistan’s high court. Five of this year’s 11 scholars are women. “It was a great honor, learning about her experience and how she could achieve this position,” Sallam said of meeting Sotomayor. “It was an inspiration for me.”
“These people are pretty extraordinary,” Garvin said. “We’ve had women who learned English by hiring private tutors and studying in a basement when it was grounds for death under the Taliban.”
As they do each year, this current crop of scholars gathered in Washington for three days following graduating for a whirlwind of tours and meetings with additional officials, including the Afghan ambassador to the U.S. The itinerary included a private tour of the Holocaust Museum.
Host law schools also benefit from the presence of the scholars on campus, said Ronald Steiner, director of graduate programs at Chapman, which admits two Afghan women to its LL.M. program each year. “I think the students and faculty who interact with them really think about the rule of law and what it means not to have that basis,” he said. And when the scholars return to Afghanistan, they build upon a network comprising those who have gone before.
“It’s in the U.S.’ interest to have stability in Afghanistan, and a part of that is the rule of law and a stable justice system,” Umberg said. “We want a cadre of young professionals in Afghanistan who can serve as a support network for each other and promote the rule of law throughout the country.”