Balkans Conference Launches Regional Rule of Law Network

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May 2014

The Balkans Regional Rule of Law Network (BRRLN)—which connects chambers of advocates (bar associations), civil society organizations (CSOs), advocates and journalists from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia and Serbia—officially launched during a May 5–7 conference in Ohrid, Macedonia. Forty people, including officers of the chambers of advocates, private advocates, journalists and CSO representatives, from the five countries attended the conference, which was convened to develop a mission and work plan for the regional network.

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The regional network, which builds upon ABA ROLI’s 23 years of experience in individual countries in the Balkans, will work to establish collaboration mechanisms and to encourage sharing of knowledge, best practices and tools among its members.

The BRRLN works to strengthen regional cooperation among stakeholders to support reform efforts. Since September 2013, the ABA Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI), with program funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, has been implementing a three-year program to enhance cooperation among the region’s defense advocates and other stakeholders. This unique regional network, which builds upon ABA ROLI’s 23 years of experience in individual countries in the Balkans, will work to establish collaboration mechanisms and to encourage sharing of knowledge, best practices and tools among its members.

Milan Antonijevic, director of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (also known as YUCOM) and a member of the BRRLN’s Media and Public Awareness Working Group, said that the network will help to unify stakeholders’ activities around issues of mutual interest. “[The bar associations, CSOs, and media were] probably on different sides, misunderstanding each other,” he said. “It would be a really good step to start talking and to exchange views because we have very common interests and we have very common problems as professionals and we can solve them only together.”

The conference began with a presentation of the findings of an ABA ROLI assessment, Comparative Analysis of Criminal Defense Advocacy in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia and Serbia. An eight-member team, including lawyers from the five countries, conducted 190 interviews and reviewed relevant legislation to assess the status of criminal defense bar associations in each of these countries. The ensuing report identifies 10 factors that nurture a strong, independent and effective criminal defense bar, describes their status in the five countries and offers recommendations for how a regional network of defense advocates could foster those factors. The report found that all five countries have independent and active chambers of advocates and laws that support the independence of the profession, and that most advocates carry out their duties without outside influence. However, the report also found that equality of arms is not always respected in practice and that defendants unable to afford representation are particularly vulnerable.

The report, which was well-received by conference participants, forms the baseline for measuring the BRRLN’s progress. It identified seven priority areas for reform in the region, which led to extensive discussions and the creation of the BRRLN’s five working groups. Each working group later met to determine its priorities and initial activities in its area of focus: criminal and civil legal aid, training and continuing education, media and public awareness, criminal law reform and increasing the capacity of the chambers of advocates.

Participants said that they were excited about the activities the working groups proposed, which include establishing cooperation mechanisms for CSOs and advocates to carry out strategic human rights litigation; advocating for rules of evidence and procedures that protect the defense’s right to conduct its own investigation; developing continuing legal education curricula and teaching materials; uniting the region’s bar associations to fight legal changes that would negatively affect the legal profession; and working with media on public legal education efforts.

“I strongly believe in what the defense bar can do and in what defense advocates can do. The defense bar is the ultimate check on government, the ultimate check on the courts, prosecutors and police,” said Beth Givens, ABA ROLI’s regional program director. “There is a lot of potential in this region through the advocates, and with organizational support, they can really act in a positive way to improve the justice system.”

To learn more about our work in the Balkans contact the ABA Rule of Law Initiative at rol@americanbar.org.

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