The Wikipedia entry describing the Afghan legal system states that “Afghanistan’s judicial system is still under construction.” But private law firms, led by D.C.-based Arent Fox, are pairing with the State Department to at least lay the foundation.
Last night at a State Department reception complete with hors d'oeuvres and sitar music, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice unveiled the Public-Private Partnership for Justice Reform in Afghanistan. “Establishing a fair, democratic, and transparent judicial system in Afghanistan is essential to the country’s success,” said Rice. “And we know there is much work remaining to be done.”
Currently, the State Department has raised $98 million from donor countries for judicial reform in Afghanistan, which suffers from a major lack of infrastructure and trained attorneys. "Every step along the way is broken or at least cracked, and we need to rebuild every step along the way," says J. Alexander Thier, a senior rule of law adviser at the United States Institute of Peace and an expert on the Afghan legal system.
Thomas Schweich, the U.S. coordinator for Counternarcotics and Justice Reform in Afghanistan, says that not enough people in the country understand the line between customary law and federal law. “It’s a matter of training,” he says. The partnership aims to solve that problem and others by focusing on four key areas: the establishment of a an Afghan Bar Association, educating Afghan attorneys, establishing a legal aid system, and supporting Afghan women judges.
The partnership includes private firms, the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney School of Law, and the State Department. Robert O’Brien, the managing partner of Arent Fox’s Los Angeles office, will chair the program along with Schweich. At the moment, only Arent Fox and the Law Offices of Donald Edgar in Santa Rosa, Calif., have contributed to the program. But O’Brien hopes to enlist more firms in the endeavor and to start bringing Afghan attorneys to the U.S. by next summer.