Navigating legal routes in Afghanistan
In a country often referred to as lawless, forming reliable, legal routes for conflict resolution, property disputes and village communication can seem daunting even to those trained in creating law from the ground up.
But, as HLS student and Chayes Fellow Carol Wang ’13 learned this summer while working in Afghanistan, establishing the rule of law at the most local level is key to development, stability and security in that country.
Through the National Solidarity Programme, Wang worked to help Afghans draft local law, based on the traditional “shura”—a council or assembly organized for the purpose of decision-making.
“You can’t impose top-down law. Bottom-up is the most effective. We’re trying to legalize a development body that the government has pretty much instituted on a village level. The question is how we can [do] that,” said Wang. “It’s exciting; you’re building institutions as they begin.”
Wang, who hails from El Paso, Texas, and earned her B.A. from Princeton, worked previously in Kabul with Democracy International on elections and for the Afghanistan Rural Enterprise Development Program.
This summer she lived with an Afghan family and through her work got to know Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins ’90, who commands the Rule of Law Field Force–Afghanistan and who received the HLS Medal of Freedom this past spring.
Martins’ team got Wang into the field via trips to Badakhshan and Khost, where she broadened her understanding of rule-of-law needs and challenges, from the villages all the way up to the highest levels in what Wang calls a “rich, nuanced country.”
Wang said she was influenced by Martins’ ability to navigate a broad network of leaders, resources, courtrooms, and judges in order to find common ground and routes to establishing law. “Really negotiating with power-holders takes a shake with people who are on the ground. … You want to make sure what you’re drafting into law is in line with the on-the-ground reality,” Wang said.
In Afghanistan there are the obvious challenges of poverty, illiteracy, lack of government services, corruption and continuing violence, said Wang, who spent much of her time interviewing Afghans and talking to power-holders. “You need rules, you need to give businesses and investors security, you need dispute laws.”
It still remains to be seen, she said, “whether the idea of exporting a democracy can really work.” Lawmakers are focusing on civil disputes such as property issues first, Wang said. “We’re going to be modest with our aims. If we write a law that is so idealistic, it can’t be enforced.”
In the process, Wang gained fresh appreciation for law in the United States.
“It’s eye-opening. Obeying the law is so entrenched in our psyche we don’t even think about it. When judges [in the United States] write their opinions, of course they would follow precedent. In Afghanistan, law is so much more fluid. It can be good, because there can be fast change. But it is also unsettling. In America, you see the potential for law realized,” she said.