Eleven Days in Libya: The Peacebuilding Roller Coaster

Graffiti art in Tripoli, Libya. The city sponsored artists to create art on each panel of the wall.

Graffiti art in Tripoli, Libya. The city sponsored artists to create art on each panel of a retaining wall along a road coming into Tripoli.

Having lived and worked in multiple war-affected countries, I have grown used to the inevitable ups and downs of transitions from war to more peaceful countries.  I use the term “more” because the reality is that just because active conflict may end, transitions are fraught with continued instability, often for years if not decades to come.  Libya is no different.

After the fall of the Gadaffi regime in 2011, Libya, like many transitional countries, has struggled to establish a just and secure state.   Militia members, who may or may not have fought in the revolution, are loath to relinquish the power they have secured and the weapons that they feel keep them safe from a variety of threats, including other armed groups competing for power, those seeking to settle scores, even common criminals.  The central government itself is struggling to establish functional institutions based on principles of accountability, transparency, inclusion and justice where none existed before the revolution.  No easy feat — even in stable environments.  But doing so in Libya, with trauma from the conflict still so fresh in the minds of Libyans, pre-existing and factitious divisions that span decades, sometimes centuries, combined with the legacy of the Gaddafi-era scare tactics — is a much higher hurdle to overcome.

We had come to Libya to work with our Libyan colleagues as part of the United States Institute of Peace’s (USIP) ongoing justice and security dialogues, bringing together police, local government, elders, doctors, engineers, professors, militia, youth and others who make up the fabric of Libyan society, to discuss justice and security challenges and find ways to work together to address them.  In order to really understand the immense challenges ahead for this fledgling new nation, as well as the tremendous potential that exist in Libya, all one needs to do is follow our travelogue:

DSC09831 Day 1 – Landing in Tripoli

As wheels touched down in Tripoli, so began my third trip to the Libyan capitol since the revolution ended.  My first visit came shortly after the fighting to oust Libyan dictator Gadaffi had ended, and the new transitional government sought to avoid, or at least gird for, the many pitfalls that often follow such violence. Between my own visits, my colleagues have been in and out of Libya multiple times, providing as close to an uninterrupted presence and continuity as possible in the face of limited budgets and resources.

As we drove from the airport, I noticed some minimal upgrades in security that had been made since my last visit.  Upon arriving at our hotel – off the beaten path and far from the center of the city – I was surprised to discover what could only be described as an oasis. Here, lush green grass, palm trees, and a hospitable staff made a convincing argument Tripoli was slowly regaining its feet, compared to my earlier visits. There was not the usual din of noise around us, but an unexpected quiet, complemented with a tranquil serene surrounding. Under different circumstances, I am confident this was a place I could come to relax.

As we met up with colleagues and poured over our schedule and agenda for the coming eleven days, we set off for the hotel’s dinner – an outside barbeque on this particular evening. As we began our meal, the silence and serenity was interrupted by gunfire just beyond the compound walls.   Gunfire is not an uncommon phenomenon on these trips. In fact, during my first trip to Tripoli, a full-fledged rocket propelled grenade battle erupted down the street from my hotel.   But you can always measure what your own level of alertness needs to be by judging how those who experience such events daily react, and since no one else at our dinner seemed overly concerned, we went on eating. But then there was a loud, unsettling “boom.”  At this point, a number of people stopped what they were doing and turned toward the blast – including the wait staff.  After one more blast, we were all alert and silent.  Then the familiar crackling sounds of fireworks followed, and we all let out a visible sigh of relief. It never fails to amuse me that countries the world over, having so recently experienced the brutality of war, still prefer fireworks and gunfire to celebrate everything from weddings to weekends, or just letting off steam.

DSC09841Day 2 – The city I remember and the signs of progress

The second day, we moved from the calm oasis on the outskirts of the city into a hotel that could accommodate our full group. It was in the heart of Tripoli, and driving in I saw the sites I remember from my previous trips – the Mediterranean Sea, Tripoli Towers, the Old City and its Ottoman Empire Walls, pock marked with the destruction of current generation ordinance. As we drove into the city, the one major change was the Tuesday Market roundabout. There were four very orderly and well coordinated checkpoints set up – staffed by different security personnel (some in standard police uniforms, others in green fatigues, some in black uniforms, with vehicles parked to their side including everything from standard police cars to small pick up trucks  (“technicals”) mounted with Russian-made DShKM 12.7 heavy machine guns.)  As we drove through one, there were about 4 “lanes” in which officers were inspecting cars as they drove by. At first, it seemed like they must be looking for illegal armed groups or others that might cause harm, but as we drove through our lane, cars were being pulled over for a myriad of violations – improper or no license plates, illegally tinted windows, etc. And not only were these cars being pulled over, the police were issuing tickets. After two years, this is a clear indication that, in the capital city at least, police were carrying out policing functions beyond filing paperwork. These small signs indicate that the security apparatus is beginning to chip away at the lack of state control – even if just a small chip.

DSC09853Day 3 – Into a lion’s den?

On the third day of the trip, we were driving to another town to host the pilot Justice and Security Dialogue (JSD). The event would last two days, and was the culmination of my colleague Christina Murtaugh’s month long planning.  On the way, I was pleasantly surprised to see a traffic cop in a immaculate white uniform, with cap on head, directing traffic in a most professional way, with all the drivers obediently honoring his instructions. Then came the first hiccup.

We got an urgent call from our Libyan colleague who suggested we contact him upon reaching the outskirts of the town.  He informed us that the main highways had been shut down. He didn’t give a lot of details, but as we neared the town, we saw his car waiting for us.  We followed him as he wove his way into the town center through back roads and side streets. We learned that the main highway had been blocked by a local militia that had been battling a rival over the past month, resulting in numerous casualties on both sides, as well as a number of prisoners being taken.

The militia in question was blocking the highway to protest reports that the neighboring militia had reneged on a tentative peace agreement forged by the two adversaries that stipulated each would release their respective prisoners, while only their own side had followed through on the agreement.

Eventually, we arrived at the location where we were to conduct our meeting only to find trucks and cars lined up on either side of the road for more than a mile and the entrance to the location blocked.  Despite the backlog of vehicles and barred gate, everything appeared calm on the surface as Libyan Shield (former militia members that are now part of the Ministry of Defense) were milling about the entrance. Libya Shield had also been serving as de facto peacekeepers between the two squabbling militias I mentioned earlier.   So we cautiously made our way to a back entrance and entered the location. We learned that this protest was the result of yet another local militia wanting local companies to employ them.

With our own adrenaline piqued after such an arduous commute, we openly questioned whether it would be possible to get such desperate and divided groups to join us at the table to initiate discussions around these and much more pressing justice and security challenges.

Our own unease aside, the palpable tension seemed to provide the ideal backdrop for substantial progress.  In fact, rather than the traditional platitudes and niceties – a part of the cultural fabric of Libya in which they take great pride in being gracious hosts and making each visitor feel at ease and welcome – each participant talked openly and honestly about the severity of their challenges, the extent of their differences and each’s understanding of the root causes. This transparency and honesty is an essential and necessary ingredient toward establishing real and constructive dialogue and finding solutions that will actually improve the situation, but usually takes time to foster.  The fact all the tension was already on the table at the outset gave us hope as we left the first day.

DSC09842Day 4 – Landing on a high note

On the second day of our dialogue, all the of the overt symptoms of the immediate security challenges were gone – negotiations the previous evening ended the road blocks, and the militia, blockading the location where we were holding our meeting, had sufficiently made their point known with their protest the previous morning and were nowhere to be seen. We came into the dialogue with renewed spirit – day two was about finding solutions to the difficult challenges aired in day one. The participants made significant headway, and by the end of the day there were a number of constructive solutions. The participants had agreed on a short-term roadmap, selecting one idea to begin working on as a test of their collaboration. And they had selected a steering group in which to drive their work. But most of all, we had grown close to this group, seeing the real struggles they are dealing with in bringing justice and security to this small corner of Libya. By the culmination of the two-day dialogue, we were confident that seeds to real partnership had been planted, and the mechanisms in place to ensure they developed fruit.

DSC09855Day 5 & 6 – Seeing the future of Libya

After the JSD sessions, we returned to Tripoli. As we drove back to the capitol city, we had opportunity to reflect on the experiences the two days prior.  While encountering roads blocked by various militias on separate occasions, it would be easy to feel disheartened.  But the fact that, in both cases, the militias had chosen peaceful protest and civil disobedience over brute force was actually an encouraging sign that perhaps slowly but surely even the militias are evolving toward rule of law over rule of the gun.

That afternoon our sense of encouragement was further bolstered as we conducted a workshop with a group of youth on facilitation skills.    This group of five – from every corner of Libya – energized my colleagues and myself with their enthusiasm, dedication and inventiveness. These youth put in hard work over the first two days of our training, epitomizing the raw leadership, ingenuity, and work ethic that permeates the Libyan society through and through. Of course, all these positives come with the unanswered question – how to harness the youth’s exuberance, idealism and raw abilities to promote lasting peace and prosperity throughout all of Libya?

DSC09836Day 6 into Day 7 – The coming storm

On our sixth day in Libya (the second of youth facilitation in Tripoli), word came down in the early evening that the Russian Embassy, just blocks away from our training, had come under sustained attack by a group of armed men, who had breached the embassy grounds.

As seemed to be a theme throughout our dialogues, the reasoning for the attack was far ranging and often contradictory.  The one consistency in the story was that a Russian woman, unattached to the embassy, had killed a prominent Libyan revolutionary.  Some said she was the man’s wife, while others insisted she was a pro Gadaffi loyalist.  No one in the embassy was hurt while two of the attackers reportedly were killed.

Three a.m. the next morning, I was startled awake by gunfire followed by explosions.  Unlike the “celebratory” fire I heard on my first night in Libya, this was clearly different, clearly a firefight. It ended after about five to ten minutes and the night calm returned.  Sleep, on the other hand, was not quite as resilient.  Later that morning I would learn that there had been an exchange of gunfire on the street of one of our youth participants. She said she had been awoken when the windows of her home began to rattle with each fusillade. She said she was instantly taken back to 2011 and the war in Benghazi.  Later we learned, although, like many things in Libya, one can never know for sure, that it was a battle between two rival groups, either drunk or on drugs. Sadly, like many societies coming out of conflict, the drug and alcohol trade and organized crime in Libya have been very quick to exploit any security shortcoming the moment it materialized.

DSC09830Day 8 – Just another weekend in Libya

Day 8 of the trip coincided with the start to the weekend in Libya. With the groups and motivations behind the assault on the Russian embassy still unknown, we felt it best to keep a low profile as the situation became clearer. As reports on the Russian embassy attack trickled in, news of a series of assassinations earlier in the week of former and current security personnel in the eastern part of Libya, around Benghazi, added to our general unease.

A few days earlier, a naval officer and his eight-year-old son were killed as the man took his son to school.  Earlier in the week three army officers had been killed.  (Other assassinations were to follow, including the killing of a senior retired police officer two days later, on Saturday.  Then on Sunday, a Colonel in the Libyan Air Force was murdered.) Our colleagues have told us – this is what they have now come to expect.  Very targeted attacks on individuals that have a symbolic message as well. After all of this bad news, we were hoping our ninth day would bring a bit of peace.

Security is never far from any of our minds.  While the nature of the job of a peacemaker is to venture into places where there is no peace, we do not do so without ample caution, prudence and no small amount of apprehension.

DSC09838Day 9 – As mixed of a bag as one can get

On our ninth day, we travelled back to our colleagues from the JSD roundtable to establish next steps following our dialogue. We weren’t sure what to expect, or what they wanted from us in terms of partnership. Upon arriving in their city, we first met with the police who had participated in our preliminary dialogue. Through our conversation, they reminded us that we had mentioned two things essential to the success of our partnership with his city: (1) we must ask what people think, and not impose ideas from the outside; and (2) we must start with what can be achieved, working on the small activities, and not try to solve all Libya’s problems at once, or we’d be overwhelmed by the complexity of the challenges.

We then met with the steering committee that had been appointed during our previous discussion. The group had made amazing progress in the six days since our initial dialogue – they had a plan of action, a division of tasks, and had created timetables, and points of contact.

Yet we discussed the planning and process, it became evident that each group had carved out different objectives based on their goals, and not necessarily respecting the others sitting across the table from them.  In many ways, it was a microcosm of the community at large, and the motivations and power struggles that exist everywhere, including my own country.

It became clear that each participant needed to spend more time on their own internal process, laying ground rules to ensure respect for one another’s interests as well as their own. It was a teaching moment for both them and us. Without an inclusive, transparent process, occasionally, the only progress that can be made is backwards.  Or at least, back to the drawing board.

Despite the setback, we left encouraged – seeing just how much work and effort the group put in, and the willingness to do more and to compromise – each with the common goal of moving forward.  We also witnessed just how difficult making change can be, and how important it is to give each process – no matter how small or large – the time needed to achieve sustainable impacts.

As we made our way back Tripoli, our own progress came to a screeching halt. As we walked in the old city, comparing notes about what we had accomplished and what we had left to do, I checked my Twitter feed only to learn that an accused member of Al Qaeda had been nabbed off the streets of Libya. Speculation was ripe as to who could have carried out such a mission, but with a five million dollar bounty on his head, and accused of plotting the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, it was widely believed to have been a U.S. forces-led operation that had taken Abu Anas Al-Libi.  As the Twitter began filling with such suspicions and concerns about retribution, we returned to our hotel to get more information.  Official statements from the U.S. government confirmed that U.S. forces had captured Al-Libi.

DSC09845Day 9 & 10 – Risk assessment

A colleague from Benghazi reported that a Facebook page had been set up with a phrase along the lines of, “We are all Al-Libi.”  Meanwhile, many other Libyans I met expressed relief at the operation, and that Al-Libi’s abduction was a good thing because he represented the extremism plaguing so much of the country, responsible for many of the targeted killings and continued instability.  I heard from other Libyans who expressed concern that the U.S. acted unilaterally and didn’t allow Libya’s own justice system to operate in the way that it should, thereby violating Libya’s sovereignty.

Still others wondered how Al-Libi could walk the streets of Tripoli with a large bounty on his head for so long without action from the young Libyan government.  Further, they questioned why the U.S. was able to tackle Libya’s militants while the Libyan government seemed unable or unwilling to address the extremist problem with the same resolve?

While others expressed they wished their own government had handled the developing crisis with more tact, that rather than proclaiming that they had no prior knowledge of the raid, that it would have been preferable if the government had made a strong statement condemning terrorism, while couching their sovereignty concerns in that context.

Many speculated on whether there would a violent reaction to the raid and who would be targeted. Given this, and working with our many colleagues on a risk assessment, we decided it was best to lay low in our hotel until we flew out the next day.


As we awaited our remaining hours before our departure, we reflected on the sheer volume of challenges presented by this particular trip and concluded that the culmination of events and multitude of emotions, set backs and breakthroughs that we experienced, perfectly epitomized in microcosm similar challenges every country emerging from conflict experiences nearly daily:

• The excitement and exhilaration that comes with the realization that with Gaddafi gone, entirely new options, promise and opportunity await the new Libya.

•  The despair and disappointment that inevitably comes as groups try to exploit even the slightest gaps and security vacuums that materialize as the new system of government takes to its feet.

•  Dismay at the power-hold militias have created for themselves by force, unwilling to cede an inch of the ground they gained in their push to topple Gadaffi.

• The hope instilled in the young generation and the potential and opportunity they possess that their forbearers did not.

While these 11 days riding the roller coaster that Libya has become, my own government was going through its own gyrations with the government shuttered and negotiations to revive its democratic processes at a standstill. And in five days since I left Libya for another African country where I am working now, the roller coaster ride in Libya hasn’t changed.

Its Prime Minister was detained by a government-backed militia group, only to be released hours later.  Prime Minister Zeidan has since called this an attempted coup.  Extremists in the eastern part of the country have grown frustrated with the governments’ role in the Al-Libi case and have threatened retaliation. Over the past week, a number of security incidents have occurred: the Swedish consulate in Benghazi was struck by a car bomb, while the wave of assassinations have continued unabated.

Yet, the fact that the militias chose to show their displeasure with the  Al-Libi capture with a peaceful protest rather than violence can only be seen as an encouraging development. I continue to turn on the news, glance at my Twitter screen every few minutes, and look on Facebook to see the next turn that Libya takes.

Had I been in Washington, D.C., I too, would be one of the hundreds of thousands of government employees furloughed over a conflict – albeit a non-violent one. It was upon those reflections, that I recalled the wise words of the police we met with during our trip: “We must let communities – whether a small town, city, country, or the world at large – first develop solutions for themselves.   And only then begin to solve the problems by focusing on building unity by focusing on shared solutions that can be achieved, rather than trying to fix everything at once, and being overwhelmed.”

But most importantly, communities the world over must strive to recognize their common interests, because ultimately, whether a household, a city block, a city, state, country or continent: united we stand, divided we fall.

This blog was originally posted on the Peace and Collaborative Development Network. (PCDN)   I am cross-posting it here.   Here is the link from the PCDN website:  http://www.internationalpeaceandconflict.org/profiles/blogs/eleven-days-in-libya-the-peacebuilding-rollercoaster#.Ulu-Lb-PWfQ


Burmese Officials, Civic Leaders Examine Challenges of Transition


Leanne, me and Susie in front of a chart that an amazing group of youth created on their own initiative during one of the working sessions. We had a mind map in English of all the components of a justice and security system. The innovative group recreated the chart and translated it into Burmese. We carried the chart all over Burma to use at other workshops.

Here is a piece that a colleague and I wrote on Burma’s transition and my recent trip to the country to meet with officials and civil society to discuss the rule of law issues.  It was an inspiring trip and despite the challenges faced in the present and future, there were so many people who hold a positive vision for the country that transcends Burma’s past. (I am cross-posting this piece as it first appeared on the website of the United States Institute of Peace at http://www.usip.org/in-the-field/burmese-officials-civic-leaders-examine-challenges-transition)

Burmese Officials, Civic Leaders Examine Challenges of Transition

By Colette Rausch and Viola Gienger

April 22, 2013

A recent two-day U.S. Institute of Peace workshop in the southern Burmese capital of Mon State, Mawlamyaing, was intended to be a discussion of the rule-of-law and mechanisms to promote it amid the country’s rapid transition. But the occasion also illustrated some of the very fundamental questions that bewilder national, state and local officials and civil society leaders in environments of such rapid political and economic change.

USIP began to engage with counterparts in Burma more than a year ago, following the U.S. Government’s move to renew direct engagement with the country after decades of isolation and sanctions that followed the military regime’s 1988 crackdown on the democratic opposition. USIP’s engagement started with unofficial discussions to strengthen relations between the two countries. This track 2 dialogue was in partnership with the Asia Society and Blue Moon Fund. Government legal advisers from the capital Naypyitaw also have come to Washington D.C. to discuss the way forward for their country, and civil society as well as government representatives have attended courses at USIP’s Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding. USIP’s Burma Team also works with civil society, particularly the religious and media sectors.  The February/March visit to the country this year also included two one-day workshops in Shan state, the Mawlamyaing workshop, as well as other meetings and discussions with government and nongovernment actors.

In the two-day workshop, the presenters were Colette Rausch, director of the Institute’s Rule of Law Center of Innovation; Susan Hayward, a senior program officer in USIP’s Center of Innovation for Religion and Peacemaking; and Leanne McKay, an independent consultant in rule of law.

More than 60 participants flooded to the February 16-17 course from Mon and Karen States, twice the number planned, but with so much interest, USIP felt it had to meet the need. The participants included a range of actors: state parliamentarians, police, judges, lawyers, academics, youth, journalists, and civil society activists. The participants’ active engagement in the group work and discussion similarly demonstrated the intense and genuine level of interest across all sectors on issues regarding the rule of law.

The aims of the workshop were to define rule of law as a concept and a practical end-state; describe how it relates to other concepts of justice, security, human rights, conflict and peacebuilding; help the participants identify both institutional and community-driven responses to rule-of-law issues in their context; and design strategic responses that would promote rule of law in Burma.

But as so often happens in cases of transition, discussions veer from those specific points to the broader context and underlying functioning of a whole society.

During breaks and over dinner in particular, the questions came tumbling out:

What happens when you feel national security is threatened and you need to take action that some might see as violating rights?

How do you balance law and order with rights and citizens’ concerns?

What do you do when some people in a country think they are above the law?

How did Kosovo deal with these issues? What are people in Libya doing about them now?

The thoughtful questions dug deep for answers. Participants were particularly eager to hear about the experience of establishing and strengthening democracy within the United States. They asked about the dilemmas and debates between national security and civil liberties the U.S. experienced in the years after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon, that also included the crash of another hijacked flight in a field in Pennsylvania. Debates that, to some extent, continue even today.

The participants also worried about the accountability of big companies in their country as economic sanctions are lifted and more transnational businesses enter the scene.  They asked how the U.S. handles such situations. They didn’t pull punches on sensitive questions – they’d heard of the Ku Klux Klan and asked if it was still active. They asked about corruption and greed in our country, and what Americans do about it.

They were the kinds of questions that are impossible to duck, especially when the credibility of a training in rule-of-law rests on openness and transparency. Their willingness to probe deeply seemed to reflect a level of trust and a feeling that this was a safe space where they could express their concerns.

They seemed to understand our explanation that democracy is a dance — an ongoing process that constantly reinvents itself, hopefully improves itself, around fundamental principles. That in the U.S., the democratic system is not perfect, but reflects the human beings who constitute it, with all their prejudices, weaknesses, aspirations, and convictions. And for this reason, establishing the rule of law begins with each person recognizing and fulfilling their own rights and responsibilities.

The discussions provided a reminder that such a workshop is often simply a vehicle for looking at the broader context of a transition. It’s easy to jump right into a discussion of systems, when a more effective approach for the creation of sustainable peace is to reflect first on the root causes and drivers of the conflict.

The good news, as one of the participants pointed out, is that two years ago, they couldn’t even have had that discussion. Now, another said, it is time to begin the dialogue in order to understand one another and together build a peaceful future.

Burmese Delegation Explores Governance & the Rule of Law in the US

I would like to share a news feature from the US Institute of Peace that discusses a recent visit of a Burmese delegation that we had the honor to host.


Burma Dialogue Involving USIP, Partners to Continue

July 2012 | News Feature by Vijay Simhan

July 6, 2012

As part of an ongoing Track II-style dialogue, the Asia Society and the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) co-hosted a roundtable in late June that brought together representatives of the Myanmar Development Resources Institute (MDRI), senior advisers to Burmese president Thein Sein, and U.S. experts to discuss the political transition away from authoritarianism in Burma. The meeting continues an informal process launched in January and involving specialists from the United States and Burma to explore opportunities to advance U.S.–Burmese relations.

In a short period of time, this Track II collaboration—which brings together, in this case, officials and non-officials for sustained, direct discussions to foster trust and cooperation between the two countries—has developed into a vibrant exchange of ideas and experts between MDRI, the Asia Society and its partners USIP and the Blue Moon Fund.  The June meetings provided the Burmese delegation with a better understanding of effective governmental operations, and it established a framework for future USIP work on Burma. A series of further exchanges is planned for the remainder of this year.

The most recent session was the culmination of a series of meetings for the Burmese delegation during their trip to Washington and New York, which included attending the June 27 Senate Committee on Foreign Relations nomination hearing for Derek Mitchell, special representative and policy coordinator for Burma, to serve as the first U.S. ambassador to that country in more than two decades. Two days later, Mitchell was confirmed. The Burmese visiting Washington also met with congressional staff members and officials from U.S. government agencies, former White House staff and nongovernmental organizations, including Human Rights Watch and the Open Society Foundations.

“As the Burmese government has taken steps over the past year, so too has the United States in an action-for-action approach. Each action we have taken in recent months has had as its purpose to benefit the Burmese people and strengthen reform and reformers within the system,” Mitchell said during his hearing.

Having been ruled directly or indirectly by a military government since 1962, Burma returned to quasi-civilian constitutional governance in 2011, freed democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, invited her and her party into the parliament via by-elections in 2012 and began to institute wide-scale political, economic and legal reforms. Press restrictions have been eased, and the new parliament, along with President Thein Sein, have become key drivers of reform. In addition, the government and representatives of minority groups are working to resolve differences with minority nationalities and achieve a broader national reconciliation.

“The country has expressed an eagerness to rejoin the world community through democratic reform and resolving its internal ethnic conflicts,” says Colette Rausch, director of USIP’s Rule of Law Center of Innovation.

In January 2012, recognizing that the challenge of implementing reforms would require considerable international support and assistance, an Asia Society delegation, accompanied by USIP’s Rausch and staff from the Blue Moon Fund, visited Burma to initiate the Track II dialogue with MDRI, a new and independent policy institute based in Yangon. MDRI’s directors provide policy advice on political, economic and legal affairs to Sein.

In April a representative from MDRI’s Centre for Economic and Social Development visited Washington for meetings with the Asia Society, USIP and the Blue Moon Fund to lay the groundwork for joint programs on rule of law, constitutional governance and environmentally sustainable development. And earlier in June, the MDRI Centre for Legal Affairs sent a group to Washington for consultations with USIP and the Asia Society on developing programs to support legal reform in those policy areas.

“We look forward to continuing to work in partnership with USIP and the Blue Moon Fund on this Track II initiative with MDRI advisers, including providing advice and assistance on needed reforms identified and led by the Burmese people,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, vice president of Global Policy Programs at the Asia Society.

Trauma Resilience as a Keystone to Building the Rule of Law in Conflict-Affected Societies

9:00 a.m.-11:00 a.m. – Understanding Trauma and its Impacts on Building the Rule of Law in Transitional States & Innovative Approaches to Fostering Trauma Resilience

  • Elaine Zook Barge, panelist
    Director, Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR)
    Eastern Mennonite University
  • Louise Diamond, Ph.D., panelist
    Founder and Director, Global Systems Initiatives
    Co-Founder, The Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy
  • COL Walter E. Piatt, panelist
    Commandant, U. S. Army Infantry School, U. S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence, Fort Benning, Georgia
  • Beatrice Pouligny, Ph.D., panelist
    Former USIP grantee and co-editor of grant book “After Mass Crimes: Rebuilding States and Communities”
    Visiting Faculty at Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service
    Georgetown University
  • Elizabeth Stanley, Ph.D., panelist
    Associate Professor of Security Studies at Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service
    Georgetown University
    Founder of the Mind Fitness Training Institute
  • Colette Rausch, moderator
    Director, Rule of Law Center
    United States Institute of Peace
  • John Lancaster, welcome address
    Board Member
    United States Institute of Peace

11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. – Trauma and its Impacts on Building the Rule of Law in Libya

  • Wail A Y Nagempanelist
    Deputy Minister of Justice
    Government of Libya
  • Essam Gheriani, panelist
    Psychologist and head of Mental Health Cluster (Benghazi)
  • Najla Elmangoush, panelist
    Program Specialist
    United States Institute of Peace
  • Matthew Stanford, Ph.D., panelist
    Professor of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Biomedical Studies
    Baylor University
  • Vivienne O’Connor, moderator
    Senior Rule of Law Program Officer
    United States Institute of Peace
  • Read the bios of all the presenters

Explore Further

A New and Optimistic Libya, Struggling to its Feet

Here is a blog on my recent trip to Tripoli posted on the website of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP): http://www.usip.org/in-the-field/new-and-optimistic-libya-struggling-its-feet

February 10, 2012
By Colette Rausch

The moment I learned the gun battle erupted down the street from my hotel, my mind started racing with the implications it could have on Libya’s tentative steps toward its new chapter.

I was just wrapping up a trip to the newly dictator-free North African country. My colleague Vivienne O’Connor and I had been in the country to work with our Libyan colleague Najla Elmangoush and Lebanese colleague Ali Chahine and offer our assistance and experiences working in transition countries. We were also there to conduct workshops on rule of law and justice in the country where — until so very recently— both were foreign concepts.

NATO strike on Qadaffi forces concealed position. Misurata, Libya

We traveled the coastline from Benghazi, the birthplace of the revolution, to Tripoli, then to the rebel towns of Zawia and Misurata that came under heavy attack by Qaddafi forces, as he struggled to put down the revolution spreading across Libya.

Everywhere we went, we encountered enthusiastic and energetic Libyans, eager to experience the freedoms and challenges of good governance in a country where none had existed before. They understood that their chosen path was not an easy one. In fact, just the day before our arrival in Benghazi, the governmental headquarters of the new National Transitional Council (NTC) had been overrun by a mob of protestors. They cited frustration with the slow pace of reform and the lack of both transparency and inclusiveness of the deliberations of the new transitional leadership.

Munitions collected and displayed in front of Misurata war memory museum

As we arrived in Tripoli, news circulated of torture of Qaddafi fighters held in Misurata prisons. And there is widespread anxiety over what is seen as a growing criminal element in Tripoli in a country already awash in weapons.

At the same time, there are a large number of fortified checkpoints and armed militias still occupying the country’s streets—equally fearful of a return of Qaddafi loyalists as being left out of the emerging power structure. But despite these significant concerns and challenges, a spirit of optimism prevailed on the streets of Libya.

We were asked on multiple occasions to pass along the Libyan people’s thanks and gratitude to the people of the United States, and specifically to President Barack Obama for coming to their aid.

Bombed out hotel, now war memory museum in Zawai,Libya

The Libyans’ newfound freedom came at a very heavy cost. For example, while in Misurata, we did not meet a single Libyan who had not lost a friend or relatives or both to the conflict. Driving down the renowned Tripoli Street and surveying building after building in ruins, it was not hard to understand the impact on the people of this seaside city, the third largest city in Libya. We visited no less than three “martyr museums” in three cities, dedicated to those who had lost their lives in the struggle and the excessive brutality that had been arrayed against them.

Over 11 days, through workshops and meetings in Benghazi and Tripoli, as well as small group meetings in Zawia and Misurata, we met with a variety of people, from governmental officials to civil society groups to youth and taxi drivers to discuss the lessons from other countries in transition and asking a number of questions: What is your vision for Libya in five years? What are the main strengths of the justice and security system and challenges that lie ahead? And, when legal disputes arise, what mechanisms are being used to resolve the dispute?

Discussions in Benghazi on rule of law in Libya

In the workshops in Benghazi and Tripoli, the participants created a list of priorities in the short, medium and long-term. They also suggested how outsiders can support their efforts at building a Libya that is just and secure. It was an honor to work with them as they take the first tentative steps toward a just and free society based on the rule of law.

Compared to other conflicts, Libya is doing OK given where it has been. We heard over and again how its culture, customs and traditions are what have held it together thus far. We witnessed this firsthand during our travels.

So when the gun fight erupted down the street, I knew there was the risk of it spiraling out of control. Not the gunfight so much. But experience has taught me that this would be a story that would splash across the news for days to come and overshadow the real story of a new, optimistic and free Libya, now struggling to its feet — warts and all.

On the Road to the Rule of Law in Burma

Here is a piece I wrote from my trip to Burma in January. It was posted last week on the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) website.  I am just now cross-posting on my blog as I have been in Libya and the internet connection was too slow to be able to upload photos into blog.  Now I sit in Frankfurt en route to Washington, DC with fast internet so here it is!


On the Road to the Rule of Law in Burma

January 2012 | News Feature by Colette Rausch

January 25, 2012  

Washington, D.C. – Over my career, I’ve worked in any number of countries emerging from war or conflict, struggling to trade a totalitarian existence for democratic processes and international standards of the rule of law. Most recently, I traveled to Burma, just as the U.S. announced that it was opening a door to a new era of diplomatic relations with Rangoon. At the same time, the Karen rebels agreed to a ceasefire, ending years of fighting. This is how I think about what lies ahead for the Asian nation.

After a few days of consultations in the bustling port city of Yangon, Burma’s former capital, we departed for Burma’s sparkling new capital city, Naypyidaw. During the six hour drive, I counted down the oddly-shaped kilometer markers lining the country’s modern highways until we reached Naypyidaw, a city essentially built from scratch about five years ago.

12 lanes of roadway in front of the Parliament Building, Naypyidaw, Burma

It was here that the parallels to the transformation the country is now undergoing as it flirts with democracy were impossible to ignore. The next day, as we drove from ministry building to ministry building, I noticed a massive, 12-lane roadway encircling one of the buildings. In fact, this improbably large road, seemingly built with a much bigger vision in mind, was virtually empty, save for our own vehicle, alone, in a vast sea of pavement. As we drove along, it struck me that, clearly, this country had high aspirations for its future. The buildings and infrastructure were immaculate —yet nearly empty. Now it is a ghost town of modernity, as if awaiting the dawning of a new day.

After 30 years of isolation following the military takeover of its civilian government, the country has expressed an eagerness to rejoin the world community through democratic reform and promotion of individual freedoms. And the large road is just one lens through which we can see this expansive vision. As they venture down this promising but uncharted road, a few thoughts on some of the avenues — and roadblocks — that could lay ahead:

The need to build trust and deliver reforms. After years of suppression of political opponents and dissent, as well as armed conflict between the Burmese army and its varied ethnic groups, the new government will need to gain the trust of the Burmese people as a whole. Trust-building through concrete positive actions will be crucial since, as one person said of past promises of reform: “Our hopes have been dashed in the past, and at times, brutally.” By incrementally delivering reform, instilling confidence with each tentative step forward, the steady progress they make will help build stability within a country of people striving to strengthen their trust in the new government.

Vegetable seller in Yangon, Burma

Engaging in an inclusive, transparent and strategic reform process is essential. It is critical to take an inclusive approach, including all stakeholders, in all communities, to making decisions along the road to reform. This approach, together with the development of a clear and concise reform plan, will help build a solid foundation of good governance and encourage constructive, well thought-out reforms.

Infusing new institutions like the police, judiciary and other organizations with the values of the Burmese people will take time. The road to true reform in any country in which authoritarianism has been the rule is seldom a quick one. Change in Burma will take many years. However, it is crucial that broad decisions outlining legal reform and governance issues be made in the near term. In that way, the new government can begin simultaneously reforming for the long term as it also builds confidence among the Burmese in the short term.

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Burma

Legal reform, traditional values and the role of the state: all about balance. Legal reform does not happen in a vacuum and is not merely a technical exercise of drafting laws. Accordingly, it will be important for the new government to balance its political, economic and legal reform initiatives in a way that reflects Burma’s historical values and considers its past attempts at reform. This will be of particular concern when it begins to address governance and the relationship between the state and various regions and communities.

I am well aware of the challenges and pitfalls that lie in wait along the road to democracy. But I left Burma with buoyed hopes. Paraphrasing the words of a youth activist I met while there, I get a feel for the cautious optimism I experienced across the country: “I am optimistic, but I am also a realist.” If Burma continues its efforts to forge a middle ground, building upon the positive steps that have been so clearly evident over the past few weeks, it can be a model of reform and political transformation. And a welcome member of the international community.

Helping Libya’s New Leaders Move from Euphoria to Reform

It was a busy week last week with news of the imminent fall of Qaddafi in Libya.  For those of us working in the “rule of law” field, questions of what next? were being posed. My thoughts are set forth below. In addition, I did a live TV interview for Alhurra TV and a radio interview for Voice of America.  My main points are as follows:

•     Transition is a difficult period.  Elation is followed by the hard work of building a new Libya

•     There will likely be a foreseeable justice and security vacuum

•     That new leadership has to instill confidence right away

•     People are going to look for a leader or governing body that is credible,  just, accountable, transparent  and inclusive

•     Goal is to achieve a diverse and competent civil society

•     Reform will take time and patience and working together

Here is the link to the Voice of America radio interview:  http://www.voanews.com/english/programs/radio/pressconference/87228367.html


Helping Libya’s New Leaders Move from Euphoria to Reform

 August 2011 | On the Issues by Colette Rausch

August 24, 2011

USIP’s Colette Rausch, director of USIP’s Rule of Law Center of Innovation, discusses the situation in Libya and what issues Libyans will have to address after Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi is out of power. While no two countries are exactly alike, USIP’s Rule of Law Center has been there before – helping countries like Nepal, Kosovo and Iraq as they navigated the minefield that is a transition from dictatorships to civil societies.

What are biggest hurdles facing Libya in the coming days?

The biggest challenge is just the transition, because so many things can happen during that time of uncertainy. You have elation, then that’s followed by reality. You have insecurity because it’s unclear who’s in charge. And this is that critical period. That reality is, you’re going to have a situation where you will have a security and justice problem. You saw this in Iraq, for example, when you had looting and general insecurity.

Police are worried about retribution or are unclear of their place in a new order, so they may step back and that creates a vacuum. If you have a country where you had a leader who kept a firm hand on things, then, when the firm hand is off, you may see old grievances emerge, retribution against the old regime and people going after those who were aligned with Qaddafi. This may cause members of the old regime to continue to fight on. These are all the types of things that can happen in these environments.

How should the world expect to see Libyans react during this period of change and uncertainty?

The Libyan opposition has had the luxury of time in thinking about what they would do when Qaddafi’s regime ends. We know the Transitional National Council has been researching top issues and “gaming” the end of the regime. But we won’t know how effective any of that preparation is until the transition really begins in the coming days and weeks.

What’s so critical in this period of time is, people are going to look for a leader, and they are going to look for a credible, just and inclusive leader. And not just a leader, but a governing body. That new leadership has to be firm and fair and instill confidence right away. If the new Libyan leadership fails to instill that confidence early on, that could lead to problems because it’s hard to get it back once trust is broken. Their first steps have to set the scene. They need to deliver, in the form of instilling confidence and providing even basic services, even if it is taking small but positive steps forward.

It’s also critical for Libyans to take a consultative and inclusive approach to making decisions, say in terms of how to handle past abuses or creating approaches for transitional justice. Quick or impulsive decisions made in the heat of the moment will not serve the new Libya well.

What will transition look like?

Ultimately, it will take a long time to infuse the new institutions, like the “police service,” the judiciary and other institutions with the values demanded by Libyans. The road to true reform takes a long time – years and years, but initially, there is no time to focus exclusively on those bigger picture concepts. One needs to keep the long-term goals in mind – strategic overhaul and reform of Libya’s rule of law institutions such as the judiciary and police service.

At the same time, its new leaders must keep an eye on what can be done in the short term to adapt these institutions in smaller ways that meet the long-term objectives of overall reform. That’s why in the immediate aftermath of the crumbling of the Qaddafi regime, it will be critical to begin both a “bottom-up” and “top-down” process for rebuilding Libya’s institutions. In some cases, we’ve seen where a country’s new leaders emerge from a conflict only to focus on developing institutions at the higher, “top-down,” level, ignoring the day-to-day needs of the citizenry. That runs the risk of significant disillusionment at the lowest – but arguably, the most important – level.

You need to work with the institutions that are already there. No existing institution is perfect, but otherwise, you’re creating a bigger gap. No transition plan survives initial execution, it will have to be adapted, but that will have to be the first step. My hope is that a discussion about what the long-term outcome of this revolution will look like can occur at the same time as the new Libyan leaders focus on the very pressing needs of a population looking for immediate answers to their questions about justice and security.

What are some practical things Libyans can do to begin to rebuild critical justice and security institutions that are so important right now? Would a Justice and Security Dialogue (JSD) work?

Maybe, in some form. A JSD is a way to convene security forces and local community leaders to identify what a “new Libya” should look like. What do the people of Libya want in their justice and security systems? It can help build that critical relationship between the two entities in a country such as Libya that has experienced intense conflict and injustice. Such a dialogue is essentially an ongoing conversation between governing officials, security forces, civil society leaders and the citizenry to work through issues of mistrust and injustice that have grown over the years and in particular due to the conflict.

A JSD is a tool, created by USIP, to address the power and security vacuum caused by a leadership change. It worked well in Nepal, where King Gyanendra fell after a revolution, creating a void that had to be filled quickly. The dialogue helped to foster new understanding, a stronger relationship between society and its police, and ultimately, a society defined by a new rule of law in those critical days and weeks following a leadership change. It is also working in Kirkuk, Iraq.

What role can USIP play?

This is a classic situation where USIP has a wealth of information on other types of transitions. No place is the same, but there are certain principles that guide each transition. We have provided quite a bit of rule of law material to those in Libya working on a transition plan in recent months.

USIP’s Manal Omar, who is in Libya now, is exploring ideas with Libyan officials on how USIP might support their efforts as they seek to establish a new government with reformed institutions. These Libyan officials have expressed interest in USIP’s thoughts on education, the role of civil society, the role of women and the rule of law. She is identifying Libyans that we might work with in these and related fields. She will also discuss with these officials some of the work we have already done in other countries in the Middle East.

More specifically, we are quickly developing plans to launch three programs: one would be an alliance of Libyan facilitators, another would be a network of nongovernmental organizations that focus on conflict mitigation and transformation and a third will be a workshop designed to convene Libyan nationals across the country on the constitutional process.

Foreign Police Assistance: Lessons from the Field

Nepal Police (Photo Credit: Shobhakar Budhathoki)

My institute held an event on Friday:  Foreign Police Assistance:  Lessons from the Field.   Having worked on justice and police reform efforts in post-conflict countries over the past 13 years, I am passionate about this topic. To me, rule of law reform is not just a technical exercise, but a path to peace. At its foundation, rule of law is about people, their relationships and the values that the society holds and upholds.  It is about fairness, justice and accountability for everyone, no matter what your station in life.  Without that, we will continue to be stuck in a cycle of violence.  There will be no peace.

I was a panelist at the event and spoke about the need to find ways to be smarter about what we do before we invest money and other resources into justice and security reform efforts overseas.

I specifically discussed the critical need to engage in an operational analysis beforehand.  In addition, I addressed the need  to find ways to work at the local level, from the “bottom up,” while at the same time, working from the institutional level or “top down.”

To that end, to address instability and crime in a post-conflict environment, even before engaging in any form of justice and security sector reform, we need to take time to listen and engage through mechanisms such as justice and security dialogue (JSD) (see previous post that discusses “JSD” in detail) and a well-crafted access to justice survey.

I concluded my remarks emphasizing that a platform is needed for people to voice their grievances, provide meaningful input and participate in the formulation of policy recommendations.  This is particularly important in the present day context of what we are seeing in the middle east and north Africa.  There is a demand for justice, security, and accountability— defining features of the rule of law.  There is a call in the streets for having a voice in the process of reform and change.  We would do well to heed that call and ensure that police assistance programs reflect these voices.

C-SPAN covered the event so it is on video.  Here is the link:  http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/PoliceAs

Foreign Police Assistance: Lessons from the Field

Seven U.S. federal agencies collectively spend billions of dollars annually on training and equipping police in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Mexico, Colombia, and elsewhere abroad.  Indeed, effective, accountable local police are a vital stopgap against terrorism, narcotics-trafficking and crime.  Yet, U.S. approaches toward civilian law enforcement assistance vary considerably from country to country, mission to mission, and agency to agency.

On July 8, the U.S. Institute of Peace will bring together field experts from USAID, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Defense to examine various approaches to U.S. law enforcement assistance.  The session will introduce USAID’s newly released Field Guide for USAID Democracy and Governance Officers: Assistance to Civilian Law Enforcement in Developing Countries and USIP will present lessons learned from police participation in its justice and security dialogues in Nepal and other countries.  We hope you can join us.


  • David YangIntroduction
    Director of the Office of Democracy, Human Rights and Governance, Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, USAID
  • John BuchananPanelist
    Author, Field Guide for USAID Democracy and Governance Officers: Assistance to Civilian Law Enforcement in Developing Countries
    Deputy Director, International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program, U.S. Department of Justice
  • Lieutenant General James DubikPanelist
    Senior Fellow, Institute for the Study of War
    Former Commander, Multi National Security Transition Command-Iraq
  • Michele GreensteinPanelist
    Deputy Director, Office of Criminal Justice Assistance and Partnership, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, U.S. Department of State
  • Colette RauschPanelist
    Director, Rule of Law Center, U.S. Institute of Peace
  • Robert PeritoModerator
    Director, Security Sector Governance Center, U.S. Institute of Peace

Building Peace in Afghanistan

My institute published an article about our work in Afghanistan.  The reporter interviewed me about the early days of our work there. It is hard to believe that it was over nine years ago since my first trip to Kabul.  I was reading my journal entries from the second trip in September 2002.  (The first trip was around May 2002.)  Here are a few excerpts.  Seems like a million years ago, really. Especially because this was before I even had a family and settled down in the suburbs. And became a gardener.

29 September 2002 (Sunday)

Just after I shut this (my new Sony VAIO computer) off last night, the bomb went off and shook our building.  The Mustafa is the journalists favorite and off they went to find out what happened.  A camera guy dragged down some equipment.  We found out this morning that it was in the neighborhood of the US Embassy a few miles away from us.  Funny, but I knew that as it felt exactly like the bomb that went off in Pristina at the Yugoslav office and woke me up.  It was the same distance away.  Luckily no one was killed although some were injured.


We went to ….  President Karzai’s palace.  Talk about security.  At the first checkpoint, we had our car and stuff searched.  They radioed and got approval to let us through.  Then we went through another checkpoint.  Same drill.   Except I had to go to a little room where women would search me.  That is standard around here.  In a few places, they didn’t have women in the little room so they just searched my bag but left me alone as they cannot touch me.  In the little room with the women, I just love it.  I get to actually interact with women after spending the entire day surrounded by men and seeing women but more like ghosts in burqas or covered and off on their own.  The women were more thorough than any security person I have ever encountered.  They went through everything.  They smelled my cosmetics to make sure it was what it appeared to be.  Then they took everything that looked metallic, even my gum with the tin looking packaging, and gave it to the men to hold until I came out.  They did a body pat down and completely touched and squeezed everything!  I was kinda surprised how intimate it was.  They had some dough things there and gave me one.  Then they gave me tea when I tried to say something and couldn’t speak due to the dryness of the dough thing.  I told them thank you in Dari and they giggled.  It was kinda fun.  On my way back through when I needed to pick up my bag of stuff, they were eating lunch which was palaw, rice with meat.  They offered me some.  I tried to refuse politely but they took out a spoon.  So, I took a spoonful and motioned how good it was.  They wanted me to stay but I had to point that others were waiting.  It was just cool.  Wish I could speak Dari. I would have stayed with them and chatted about how things were, etc.  I also wish I had taken a photo but completely forgot.   Oh, and after we got through that, we drove toward the palace and saw the American special forces guys who are protecting Karzai.  They searched every car with a bomb sniffing dog named Dino.  So, I am happy to report that security is quite strong there.  It is completely different than when I was there three months ago.  We also saw the Turkish military training the Afghan National Guard (to protect Karzai and the Palace) on the grounds of the palace. That was pretty cool.  There were about 50 Afghans doing drills of some sort.  Tactical things.  

3 October 2002

 The traffic in Kabul is nuts.  The pollution is horrible.  That combined with dust leaves you coated and coughing by the end of the day.  There was a story on CNN about the traffic.  It was funny being here and seeing the story and recognizing the streets we have been stuck on.  Because of all the traffic jams, kids selling the newspaper and magazines published through international organizations tapped on the window and hold them up.  You purchase them by passing money out the window and you get the paper/magazine.  Well I wanted a magazine I had been seeing around so while we were stopped I motioned to a kid I wanted it.  I had just passed the money out the window when the driver started to take off.  The kid ran after us and just got the magazine to me.  It all happened so quickly I didn’t think to tell the driver to stop.  The kid could have just taken the money and left me without the magazine but he was so proud having caught us to give it me that he smiled and waved and I did the same.  It is all funny money transactions anyway as they want dollars and will say two dollars or one dollar.  When you say how much in Afghanis, they will say 20,000.  But that is only about 40 cents.  Last time I was here it was 10,000.  Inflation.  I have seen that all over.  Things have gone up for internationals (including carpets unless you have a contact like we did with Zaher) since there are more of them and Afghans are quick learners. 

We have noticed and talked about the fact that the international news is not covering some of the stories here.  For example, the bomb that went off near the US Embassy.  According to one of the foreign service officers we met with, they could feel it to the extent it actually made their bodies vibrate.  Plus the guard gate windows were blown out.  But the news was a little story on BBC and only the ticker tape mention in CNN (the banner they do at the bottom.)  Then there was a near fire fight at the Palace the other day.  Fahim (Defense Minister/commander of the Northern Alliance, engaged in a power play with Karzai) crashed through the gates of the Palace.  He almost ran over Dino the dog I told you about.  The American Special Forces guys drew their guns on him and his guys.  Fahim ordered his guys to shoot.  They didn’t but had their guns drawn.  The person we know there walked out in the middle of it and ended up taking a dive and crawling out on his stomach.  The palace staff were so freaked out they stampeded out and three guys on bicycles were injured when they crashed into a wall in the chaos.  The situation calmed down.  But this just shows how close this place is to all hell breaking loose.  But this didn’t get in the news.  The guy we know was right there and saw it.  We figure there isn’t coverage because they don’t want to freak people out and want to keep the image as secure. 

USIP’s Afghan Rule of Law at Work: Strengthening Long-Term Security

June 2011 | News Feature by Thomas Omestad

June 7, 2011

The enormous task of helping to stabilize Afghanistan depends on much more than Afghan and international forces making military gains against the Taliban and other extremists; it depends as well on encouraging durable political and legal advances in a country that has suffered from a lack of democracy, basic rights and real recourse to the tools of justice.

To that end, efforts to help Afghans establish the rule of law have been drawing on the expertise of specialists from the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) for years. Much of USIP’s rule-of-law work has been funded by the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has supported USIP’s broader conflict resolution and peacebuilding training and education there.

USIP has been working at the complicated intersections of law, politics, culture, crime and civil disputes to help Afghans move toward a society in which the rule of law becomes a norm upon which they can depend. The work is prompted by the recognition that a country that routinely denies access to justice is likely to spawn instability, terrorism and other violence. That dynamic, left unchecked, retards efforts to defeat the appeal and reach of insurgents, whose own sense of justice features meting out brutal punishments on those who run afoul of their militant demands.

As Scott Worden, the USIP senior program officer who heads its Afghan rule-of-law team, explains, “Small disputes go unresolved. They escalate into larger feuds, and they become fuel for the insurgency. There are much larger implications here.” Adds Worden: “Rule of law is one of the thickest pillars supporting the foundation of a stable Afghanistan….Unsecured or lawless areas provide fertile ground for the Taliban.”

Shahmahmood Miakhel, USIP’s country director based in Afghanistan, puts it directly: “We need to help build a stable environment so international military forces do not have to come back.”

USIP was among the first organizations to focus on law and justice issues in Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks and the U.S.-led campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaida in 2001. USIP officers participated in a systematic effort to collect and digitize previous Afghan laws that had been scrapped or ignored under Taliban rule, drawing on the resources of the Afghan diaspora and the U.S. Library of Congress. A USIP-convened international conference brought together Afghan and international experts to share ideas on strengthening the rule of law in post-Taliban Afghanistan. Additionally,based on its research and increasing work with Afghans, USIP published large portions of two volumes titled “Model Codes for Post-Conflict Criminal Justice” and translated the entire handbook on “Combating Serious Crimes” into Dari. These publications provided a starting point to identify international legal standards that might be applied in the Afghan context. “In the early days, we tried to supply tools to them,” said Colette Rausch, who directs the Institute’s Rule of Law Innovation Center.

In more recent years, USIP’s work has spread into many of the most sensitive issues emerging from a newly democratic Afghan government’s struggles to extend the rule of law where lawlessness once reigned. Said Veeraya K. Somvongsiri, USAID’s rule of law team leader in Afghanistan, “USIP occupies a unique position straddling policy and practitioner communities. USIP has provided intellectual leadership on key rule-of-law issues.” There is an additional, practical dimension as well, Somvongsiri noted: “USIP has convening power and access to or relations with a wide range of actors in civil society and government.”

Key USIP initiatives include:

Linking formal and informal justice systems. While formal structures of jurisprudence dominate in the West, most criminal and civil justice procedures in Afghanistan take place through informal channels—often community councils known as shuras and jirgas, or mullahs as well. That tradition may not comport well with orthodox Western advice on bringing justice systems to a place like Afghanistan. But USIP specialists concluded that within an overwhelmingly rural population composed of diverse tribal and ethnic groups, informal justice methods are often broadly known—and they should be considered as a short-term bridge to the goal of competent state police, prosecutors and courts. “You can’t ignore reality,” said Rausch.

USIP helped spearhead the pragmatic shift on these issues, drawing the participation of other U.S. and foreign aid agencies. “They look to USIP as a leading edge in approaches to improving rule of law activities in Afghanistan,” said Christina Bennett, a development expert who has studied the effectiveness of USIP’s Afghanistan programs. “USIP has a lot to offer the international community and Afghanistan in terms of rule of law. The level of expertise is higher than many other organizations working there.”

Since 2002, USIP has been studying traditional dispute resolution in the country — with an intensifying focus on how to mesh the informal with the formal so that legal disputes can be resolved more reliably and effectively. The informal procedures have the advantages of retaining considerable public trust and drawing on voluntary participation. But the country’s social upheavals, insurgent violence and new mobility all have made enforcement more difficult, and the outcomes of disputes can sometimes be tilted to reflect the clout of a locality’s influential tribes or clans.

With USIP advice, the U.S. military and Embassy in Kabul have tailored their rule-of-law aid programs to support the ability of local shuras and jirgas to consider disputes, depriving the Taliban of political kindling while at the same time developing ways to monitor practices that deprive women and other disadvantaged groups of their legal rights. The value of USIP’s field work in helping to secure military gains over the longer run was cited in a 2009 letter by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus. “In Afghanistan, USIP’s work on the informal justice system has been invaluable as we work toward improving the rule of law at the provincial level,” Petraeus wrote.

The security rationale for the USIP initiative is direct: “If both the formal and informal systems aren’t able to solve a dispute, the people involved seek Taliban help,” Miakhel. USIP program officers, in fact, have been training U.S. officials in how the Taliban exploit gaps in Afghan justice. In the past few months, the Institute has expanded the number of pilot projects to build or strengthen links between informal and formal justice from eight to 13 districts, and for the first time it has begun operating in some recently heavy-conflict areas in the provinces of Nimroz, Helmand and Uruzgan.

USIP has also been providing advice to the Afghan central government on proposed legal reforms related to criminal justice and due process. “The Institute has been ahead of the curve,” said Rausch.

Implementing the Constitution. A new Constitution establishing a democratic framework was ratified in 2004. Yet significant and politically touchy issues remain about the roles of two separate entities in interpreting the Constitution, which is ambiguous on several key points such as who can remove cabinet members from office or when election results are final. USIP has been researching those “gaps” and is consulting with the newly formed Afghan Independent Commission for the Supervision of the Implementation of the Constitution, as well as with Afghanistan’s Supreme Court itself. The aim is to encourage resolving the differences through dialogue and averting a dangerous constitutional crisis. The Institute is also assisting Kabul University in the creation of a Center for Constitutional Studies, a future venue for discussion and debate of constitutional questions.

Transitional justice. USIP is helping strengthen Afghan nongovernmental organizations to take on the human rights abuses of the past. Even a decade after the Taliban was toppled, many Afghans want to see the truth about misdeeds exposed and accountability assigned. Despite some political reservations in Kabul, said Worden, “There’s still a huge pent-up demand for addressing past crimes.” USIP has helped to create a network of human rights and other nongovernmental groups that are documenting past crimes—a network known as the Transitional Justice Coordinating Group. At the same time, Institute convened a conference and commissioned further research to energize thinking in Afghanistan and among Islamic scholars on how Islamic thought can play a role in popular demands for post-conflict justice—an effort that could strengthen support for holding human rights abusers accountable for their crimes. USIP has also provided technical advice to the Afghan government commission charged with weeding out candidates in the 2009 elections who had links to illegal armed groups.

Support for civil society. The Institute has been encouraging ordinary Afghans to get involved in issues of justice and conflict resolution. USIP grantee Equal Access International produced a radio series on government transparency, security and the demand for justice that reached between 900,000 and one million people. Forty five public forums were held involving more than 900 Afghan citizens; they discussed how the topics covered on the radio broadcasts can be applied on the ground. Overall, USIP has partnered with 15 organizations to improve the capacity of the country’s civil society to conduct open dialogue on conflict resolution, good governance and transitional justice.

A rule-of-law network. The Institute continues to expand an online discussion community for practitioners called the International Network to Promote the Rule of Law (INPROL). Through detailed, practical commentaries, professional law experts offer advice, recount relevant experience and provide contacts for those in Afghanistan who are trying to advance the rule of law. INPROL, though global, is being tapped widely in Afghanistan. One-third of members who have joined over the past six months are in Afghanistan. They include a number of U.S. officials at work in the country.

Sowing the Peace: Traveling Toward the Rule of Law in the Middle East and North Africa — Avenues and Obstacles

In this piece, my colleagues and I discuss the rule of law challenges and opportunities facing the Middle East and North Africa in the wake of the upheaval and changes in Egypt, Tunisia and region:


Here is the summary (see the link above for the complete report):


  • Popular uprisings throughout the Middle East and North Africa are demanding justice, security, and accountability— defining features of the rule of law.
  • Constitutional reform is a priority, but it must be done by legitimate representatives of the people, not hangovers from the past. Principles of inclusivity, transparency, and participation must be at the heart of the process.
  • Transitional justice must deliver justice for the victims of the former regimes but not impose victor’s justice. It must also mesh with Islamic justice where relevant.
  • The legal debris of the past must be removed through a process of law reform, and steps must be taken to ensure that old ills, such as endemic corruption, do not reappear.
  • Rising crime and retribution against security forces make it difficult to maintain security. But providing security as well as justice is vital if the new political orders are to maintain popular support.