Washington, 28 November 1996 (RFE/RL) - The Central and East European Law Initiative (CEELI), an American-based program offering legal advice and assistance to Central and Eastern Europe as well as the countries of the former Soviet Union, has met with notable success, according to the director of the program.
Mark Ellis, executive director of CEELI, told RFE/RL that since the initiative was established in 1990, there has been much progress in promoting legal reform abroad.
CEELI was created by the American Bar Association, the United State's most powerful organization in the legal field, and was designed to encourage the rule of law by supporting reform efforts in the region. According to Ellis, the goal is to provide "neutral advice" on legal matters and create a "partnership" between CEELI volunteers and members of the host country.
Initially CEELI's legal assistance programs focused on critical issues such as constitutional law, judicial restructuring and criminal law in the newly-democratic countries, but the programs have since expanded to include legal matters involving the media, commercial and non-profit property and land use law.
The way the program works is that CEELI sends a liaison to a country for at least a year, assessing the need for and reception to the types of legal programs offered by CEELI. If a need is identified and members of the host country are receptive, experts are then sent to the countries to offer technical assistance and advice on a wide variety of legal matters. CEELI works with both government and private organizations in the host countries.
Since 1990, CEELI has sent over 220 liaisons and legal specialists abroad, conducted more than 250 workshops and training seminars, and assessed more than 255 draft laws and constitutions.
CEELI experts are mostly volunteers, and include private and government attorneys, judges, law professors and law students. Those selected usually take a sabbatical from their jobs and receive only compensation for airfare and accommodation. Most volunteer for a one- or two-year stay in a particular country.
Competition for the positions is fierce, said Ellis, because it offers members of the legal community a first-hand look at a country actually drafting a constitution or developing its legal branch -- opportunities no longer possible in most Western countries that already have a long-time established legal order.
Ellis cites constitutional drafting as one of the organization's most significant achievements. After the end of the Cold War, said Ellis, many countries needed technical assistance in drafting new constitutions.
"We simply provided experts who would sit down with the drafters and provide assessments and comments, and key in on issues that may be of concern as these drafters went forward in a very difficult process," he said. "It was a real highlight for us because to be at the table with the founders of a new country's constitution is a humbling experience for us."
Ellis says that with the exception of Serbia, no country has ever interfered with or hindered CEELI's activities.
"Our position is that we try to enter into these arrangements so that there is not a perception that the CEELI program is there to do anything but provide neutral advice in support of the rule of the law," he said.
However, Ellis said that there have been instances where governments have not been overly supportive of democratic reforms, and therefore CEELI's efforts in the region. He cited Belarus as an example and said that in this case, CEELI tries to focus on working with non-governmental agencies such as the bar association or judges associations in the country.
"If we don't have the support of the Ministry of Justice, so be it," Ellis said.
Ellis says CEELI takes great pains not to be seen as a program that goes into a country to tell people what they "should do and should not do."
"We believe the U.S. legal model is one model of interest, but obviously there are others that are perhaps even more relevant. There are models from Western Europe, and models that existed in many of these countries prior to the [Cold] War ... We thought we could tap into the energy and dynamic spirit here in the United States and elsewhere to help provide this type of assistance," he said.
Ellis said CEELI regularly invites members of the Western European judicial community to participate in its programs.
Ellis said his organization is careful not to be seen as imposing Western values on another country's society. He said that CEELI enters into a partnership with members of the host country, responding to their needs and offering advice, which either may or may not be taken. Ellis adds that there are no lectures or conferences, but that all programs are interactive workshops with the topic often being initiated by the host country.
More recently, Ellis said he is "very excited" about ongoing discussions between Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty about forming a partnership to produce and broadcast legal programs using CEELI experts.
"What Radio Free Europe does is something we don't do, and that is Radio Free Europe has an outreach into the general public -- the common individual who is not involved with the drafting of the constitution or the drafting of a law," said Ellis.
"There needs to be an understanding of what this whole transformation is about. Not how it is important to the individual sitting in Parliament or the constitutional court, but how it is important to the individual who really has had no involvement in the political or legal process but must understand that the decisions being made will have a direct impact on that individual."
CEELI currently has programs in 22 countries, including Belarus, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Kazakhstan, Krygyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.