Washington, 3 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The Central and East European Law Initiative (CEELI) -- an American-based program offering legal advice and assistance -- has helped the emerging democracies of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe achieve some important legal milestones in 1997 and 1998, according to its program director.
Mark Ellis, executive director of CEELI, told RFE/RL that several legal accomplishments were attained over the past year, including the formation of legal advisory bodies to the governments, the creation of national and student lawyers associations, the establishment of special judge's and lawyer's training centers, and the creation of legal libraries and information centers.
The program was established in 1990 by the American Bar Association -- an influential organization in the legal field. The program is dedicated to encouraging the rule of law by supporting reform efforts in the region. According to Ellis, the goal of the organization is to work in a partnership with other countries to help build viable legal institutions and that will carry on the work long after CEELI is gone.
The organization's experts are mostly volunteers, and include private and government attorneys, judges, law professors and even students. Most volunteer for a one or two year stay in a particular country.
Competition for positions is fierce, says Ellis, because it offers members of the American legal community a first-hand look at a country actually drafting a constitution or developing its legal structure -- opportunities no longer possible in most Western countries.
According to Ellis, some of his organization's most notable recent achievements include helping Armenia establish its first comprehensive lawyers association -- The Bar Association of the Republic of Armenia -- a non-governmental organization.
"We feel this (organization) is exceedingly important because we believe lawyers must play an essential role in the reform process that is occurring in each and every country. Often times lawyers did not have an opportunity to associate in this type or form."
Ellis says the program also co-sponsored six regional workshops attended by judges from the Association of Judges of the Republic of Armenia in 1997 on the new draft civil code, civil procedure code, the criminal code and the criminal procedure code.
In Belarus, Ellis says his organization was busy helping to found the Center for Constitutional and Comparative Legal Studies. He says his organization also helped establish the Belarus Law Student's Association and held regional workshops for lawyers and judges on trans-border issues including foreign investment, customs law, trade law and taxation of foreign enterprises.
But Ellis says operating in Belarus hasn't been easy, because of increasing government controls on foreign organizations working in the country. Ellis says his liaisons have been harassed, but so far they have been allowed to maintain their operations.
"We continue to be permitted to do our work in Belarus, to work with the non-governmental organizations, in hopes that when things do change in Belarus, what will emerge is a very dynamic and driven group of young lawyers who will really move the country into a state of true reform."
Ellis says his organization also undertook major projects in Central Asia in 1997 and 1998. Currently CEELI operates in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Ellis says some of the program's most eventful work took place in Tajikistan. Continuing civil strife, which has persisted even though peace accords between the Tajik government and the Islamic opposition have been signed, made the work difficult.
Ellis says CEELI began its program in Tajikistan in April 1997, focusing on improving the status and independence of the judiciary, providing legislative assistance, and promoting reform in the legal profession.
"Tajikistan was quite interesting because of the armed struggle going on there. Our liaison had to be evacuated several times. And yet we've maintained an office and programs there. We've also worked closely with judges -- the judges association -- to provide training programs, and worked to get out information to judges regarding professional conduct....We hope that 1998 will not be a year of so much turmoil for Tajikistan, so hopefully we can increase our activities there."
Ellis also says his organization co-sponsored a workshop on judicial reform which was attended by eighty Tajik judges. According to Ellis, that workshop inspired a resolution to the parliament urging greater judicial autonomy over the courts.
In Kazakhstan, Ellis says CEELI conducted a roundtable presentation inside the Kazakh Supreme Court on judicial associations, lobbying and court administration. The organization also conducted bi-weekly roundtables and published bi-monthly journals with a working group of lawyers in Shymkent addressing issues such as criminal law, legislative drafting, women's issues, private law practice and human rights.
In Kyrgyzstan, CEELI implemented the publication of the "Commercial Law Newsletter" written by the Association of Attorney's of Kyrgyzstan. The organization also posted a judicial specialist to work within the courts to help develop a judicial training manual and codify judicial enforcement procedure, says Ellis.
In Uzbekistan, the highlight of 1997 was the establishment of the Open Library for Legal Information in Tashkent which was funded primarily by the Soros Foundation -- a private, non-profit organization founded by American financier Geroge Soros.
Ellis says that his organization also did a lot of work in 1997 and 1998 regarding women's issues in Russia and Serbia. The issues being addressed the most, he says, are women's rights, domestic violence, rape, trafficking of women and children, and refugee problems. Ellis says the organization plans to expand its focus on women's issues to many other countries in the near future.
While Ellis says there is still much to be done in the region regarding law and legal reform, he adds that steady and substantial progress. The main focus, he says, is on building institutions that will endure and effectively support the rule of law.
"Our biggest goal is to ensure that these organizations and entities that we work with can carry on once we leave. So, you'll find a lot of the focus we have is on sustainability. That is easier said than done. Non-governmental organizations struggle every day in the United States....So you can imagine a new non-governmental agency trying to do the same in Kyrgyzstan or Albania, or any of the other countries. It isn't easy work, but it is important."