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Meeting the Challenge

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In 1991, Colorado lawyer William D. Meyer took a sabbatical from his Boulder-based law firm. He then flew to Bulgaria with just enough money to rent a small office for three months as the first on the ground liaison for the ABA’s fledgling effort to help develop democratic legal structures in post Communist Eastern Europe.

Since then, hundreds of lawyers have followed in Meyer’s footsteps as volunteers in what grew into the Central European and Eurasian Law Initiative. CEELI became the template for rule of law initiatives in Africa, Asia and Latin America, making the ABA a major player in efforts to improve the legal systems in developing nations around the world. So it came as no surprise to Meyer when CEELI officials tapped him to journey to the Middle East in 2003 to discuss legal assistance programs at the invitation of the government of Bahrain.

“We needed someone used to going into new places and starting a brand new project by himself with no support–and experienced in dealing with foreign and U.S. governmental officials,” Meyer says.

Meyer’s travels are again bearing fruit. In February, the ABA Board of Governors created the association’s fifth regional assistance project, the Middle East and North Africa Initiative. MENA will build on the work begun by CEELI: providing technical support to legal groups and governments in the region who seek to create legal structures that will advance the rule of law.

Meyer and others say MENA will likely face some unique challenges. Even with his experience in startup projects, Meyer says going to Bahrain a tiny country made up of several islands in the Persian Gulf off the coast of Saudi Arabia–proved quite different from his other efforts.

“That was my first time in a kingdom working for a king,” says Meyer. “It’s one of the most progressive nations in the area, but I’m not used to a situation where the king hires over half the judges from other countries to serve on the court.” Those unique experiences, in part, dictated the need for a regionally specific effort like MENA.

“We recognized the Middle East was very much its own geographic and cultural world eight or nine years ago,” says Roberta Cooper Ramo of Albuquerque, N.M., who chairs the ABA’s Rule of Law Initiative. “But I think our efforts have matured, and there is enough funding and interest from in country partners that finally made [the creation of MENA] possible.”

The initiative already has 11 field based employees stationed in seven countries, according to Angela Conway, the program’s director. They are supported by local staff and volunteer legal specialists who work for three to six month terms. MENA also has 11 employees in Washington, D.C.

MENA was instrumental in launching the Jordan based Arab Women’s Legal Conference, which supports female legal professionals across the region. Another important regional entity is the Arab Council for Judicial and Legal Studies, which grew out of a meeting in 2005 of legal representatives from 10 Middle Eastern nations, France and the United States to create an entity that would address judicial development.

Entering the Hot Zone

The Middle East environment in which MENA operates is not just culturally unique; in some spots it can be downright dangerous. In Iraq, for instance, the ABA withdrew its volunteer lawyers advising the new government on a constitution when security deteriorated.

The ABA’s outreach in the Middle East “is a very ambitious undertaking,” says Herman Schwartz, a law professor at American University in Washington, D.C., who has worked with CEELI and done legal training in Israel. “This is not fertile ground. The word American probably doesn’t help open doors, but the ABA did make a good reputation for itself in Eastern Europe, which has helped open doors in other parts of the world.” In Central and Eastern Europe, says Meyer, new governments and legal communities were eager for help from the ABA after the Soviet bloc collapsed. But in the Middle East, where credibility is hard to win and harder to keep, the reception has been mixed. Meyer recalls, for instance, facing a hostile audience in a March 2006 talk at the Faculty of Sharia and Law in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen.

“I was roasted,” he says. “They wanted to know why I was there to talk to them about human rights when the U.S. had been involved in abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. But I think they were impressed somebody would show up and talk openly to them.”

There’s also the matter of MENA’s U.S. government funding. Total grant funding for the ABA’s international initiatives is $35 million per year, with about $32 million coming from federal sources. CEELI receives the largest share, at about $15 million, while MENA receives $10 million.

“There’s a sense the ABA is too much identified with the U.S. government,” says M. Cherif Bassiouni, president emeritus of the International Human Rights Law Institute at DePaul University in Chicago. “A lot of funding comes from the U.S. government, and they use too many U.S. prosecutors and judges for their programs who overemphasize American procedures and law.”

Know How to Act

Ramo, an ABA past president, says each of the ABA’s rule of law initiatives has diversified its funding sources as it matured, and she expects MENA to do the same. “The most important thing to remember is that we never go into a country without a request or coalition of in country partners,” Ramo says. “We don’t try to take our legal culture and impose it anywhere. We ask questions and ask where they want to go and figure out how to get there given the realities in each nation.”

Meyer says a key to MENA’s success in the Middle East will be the way volunteer lawyers working on the ground interact with their local counterparts.

“The way I’ve always done it every time I’m overseas is primarily to listen and readily admit that I’m not an expert in the local law,” Meyer says. “This is a long term project, and you have to build relationships slowly.”

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