By Philip Dine
POST-DISPATCH WASHINGTON BUREAU
Sunday, Jan. 06 2008
WASHINGTON — Hoping to turn around a tenuous judicial situation in Afghanistan,
the State Department is establishing a public-private partnership that gives
American law firms a role in the troubled nation's future.
Law firms that contribute money to the U.S. effort towards an effective and
transparent justice system in Afghanistan will be given a say in the carrying
out of those policies. The goals include training more defense attorneys so
they will be available to ordinary Afghans and training more women as
prosecutors and judges.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says the plan is "essential to the
country's success" in combating corruption, drug trafficking and other major
problems in the nation.
Although the plan to involve U.S. lawyers hasn't gotten off the ground yet,
some experts wonder how many law firms will participate. And Sen. Christopher
Dodd, D-Conn., a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,
sharply criticized the idea.
"Once again this administration wants to outsource important policies to the
private sector because resources and trained experts are tied up in a failed
policy in Iraq," Dodd said.
The effort is being led by St. Louisan Tom Schweich, a high-ranking State
Department official who said he was not aiming for privatization. "All of the
programs are publicly administered," he said. "This is simply a source of
funding and some expertise."
Schweich said he would personally approach St. Louis law firms.
"Generally what we're looking for is for law firms to make a two-year
commitment for ,000 a year," he said. "Partners" will serve on an advisory
committee that will have input into how resources are allocated, attend press
conferences and get regular briefings from senior State Department officials.
Bigger contributors will have more involvement, including the opportunity to go
on official trips to Afghanistan.
Donations by law firms will be tax deductible, but they can't earmark donations
for specific uses. The State Department will steer the money through local,
non-governmental organizations such as the Afghan Women Judges Association,
Legal Aid Organization of Afghanistan and Afghan Prosecutors Association.
Co-chairing the effort with Schweich is Robert O'Brien, managing partner of the
Los Angeles office of Arent Fox, a law firm based in Washington.
Schweich has been in charge of the State Department's largely unsuccessful
effort to curb illicit narcotics production and trafficking in Afghanistan,
whose poppies account for about 90 percent of the world's heroin.
He hopes an effective judicial system could help. He said U.S. and Afghan
counter-narcotics efforts had been hamstrung by the legal system's inability to
arrest, try and incarcerate drug producers.
Rice said the program's aim was to enlist private money and skills to help
establish "the rule of law" in Afghanistan and boost the professionalism of
Afghan lawyers and judges.
"We are asking American law firms and law schools to help the Afghan judicial
system in a number of ways," she said. "By providing lawyer-to-lawyer support,
we hope to bring Afghan practitioners into the larger international community
of legal professionals."
The State Department hopes to initially raise as much as million over the
next two years, adding to the million the State Department is already
spending on the country's justice system, Schweich said.
The Justice Department is helping, but federal prosecutors don't want to train
defense attorneys, he said.
The program has been crafted to avoid conflicts of interest that would give
firms favoritism in their business dealings with the State Department, he said.
Along with St. Louis, where Schweich was a partner at Bryan Cave before joining
the administration, he'll personally focus on law firms in Washington, New
York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
The University of Utah has already offered to serve as a training ground for
some Afghan prosecutors, donating faculty and facilities. Schweich hopes to
seek a similar arrangement in St. Louis.
Afghan legal officials currently work in rudimentary conditions, both in terms
of physical facilities and training. Judges and lawyers often rely on their
personal understanding of Islamic law and tribal codes without taking Afghan
laws into account. Those laws differ in that they are unwritten and vary from
region to region.
One goal of the partnership is to help set up an independent bar association in
Afghanistan to regulate entry into the profession, uphold professional
standards and ethics, protect the public interest and advocate for the
independence of lawyers.
Another goal is to promote women in the legal system. Under the Taliban, Rice
noted, women were largely relegated to the home, but since the radical regime's
overthrow in 2001, the struggling Afghan justice system has hired a number of
women. Still, of 1,500 judges nationwide, only 60 are women.
Analysts say the program seems like a good idea but will probably encounter
challenges in practice.
Mauro De Lorenzo, an expert in international development at the American
Enterprise Institute, wondered "how eager the law firms will be in
participating." The impact will be reduced if the participation is more
"symbolic" with firms doing only what they think is expected of them, he said.
Lisa Pinsley is a development expert who recently returned from four years in
Afghanistan, where she worked with the United Nations and the Afghan government
recruiting outside experts to aid development. She said the task grew
increasingly difficult as attention turned from Afghanistan.
Pinsley said the State Department program's success would depend partly on how
effectively it was integrated into an overall strategy for the nation by the
U.S. government, Europe and others.
"The more money and attention, that's great," Pinsley said.