December 30, 2015

ABA ROLI’s 2015 Year in Review: Meeting Today’s Rule of Law Challenges

Director, ABA Rule of Law Initiative

This year—our 25th—has been a landmark year for the ABA Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI): a time of reunion, reflection and recommitment to a mission that remains critically compelling.


Since May 2015, ABA ROLI-trained lawyers have provided almost 250 legal awareness sessions, reaching 4,487 Syrians—more than 50% of whom are women—and providing private counseling to 355.


We celebrated our anniversary with a series of events that looked both to the past and to the future. Our Annual Rule of Law Conference in April, a special gathering of our alumni at the CEELI Institute in Prague in June and our Rule of Law Luncheon at the ABA Annual Meeting in August, each offered an opportunity to commemorate 25 years of rule of law impact, but also to take stock of that experience in light of daunting rule of law challenges in today’s world.

At the Annual Rule of Law Conference, panel discussions mined lessons learned from programs that promote “top-down” institutional reforms as well as “bottom-up” grassroots efforts, while U.S. Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski gave an inspiring keynote on the critical need to stand with increasingly embattled civil society organizations around the world, hailing ABA ROLI’s contributions to that effort.

[T]hanks to the ABA’s Rule of Law Initiative, lawyers in Libya are learning about legal ethics, Syrian refugees in Turkey are getting access to legal services, Russians are gaining new tools to fight corruption, civil society groups in the Central African Republic are taking part in forming their countries constitution.
[U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski, Keynote at the 2015 ABA ROLI Annual Rule of Law Conference]

In Prague, ABA ROLI alumni with experience working in more than two dozen countries shared new strategies for responding to the closing space for civil society, combatting entrenched corruption and building capacity of judiciaries to adjudicate complex 21st century cases. And at the Rule of Law Luncheon, U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Mari Carmen Aponte told a packed room of the staggering rule of law challenges posed by the lawlessness in Central America.

Each of these events underscored that our mission is as important and relevant today as it was in 1990, and thus, even as we celebrated 25 years this year, ABA ROLI did not rest on its laurels. Our nearly 700 staff and volunteers worked tirelessly in more than 50 countries throughout the world to support judges and lawyers, activists and citizens to advance the rule of law and a better future. Here, I would like to highlight just a few of their innovations and achievements.

ABA ROLI mobilized to respond to the refugee and migration crisis that dominated headlines throughout the year, addressing both immediate needs and root causes.

  • In Turkey, ABA ROLI-supported bar associations and lawyers helped Syrians understand their rights and access housing, education, health care and other services. Since May, ABA ROLI-trained lawyers have provided almost 250 legal awareness sessions, reaching 4,487 Syrians—more than 50% of whom are women—and providing private counseling to 355.
  • Meanwhile, looking to the root causes of migration, ABA ROLI-supported early warning systems and partnerships with first responders protected villages from armed attack in Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo; and our trainings for judges and prosecutors in El Salvador and Guatemala helped them counter the insecurity that is driving people from their homes in those countries.

Throughout 2015, ABA ROLI leveraged new technology in its programs, providing our justice sector partners with innovative tools that broaden their networks and expand their reach.

  • In the Philippines, we rolled out an electronic case management system, bringing increased efficiency, effectiveness and transparency to the courts. Processes that took weeks and months can now transpire in minutes and hours, providing lawyers and litigants meaningful, real-time access to justice.
  • In March, the ABA ROLI-supported Balkans Regional Rule of Law Network launched an interactive website, connecting the bars of the formerly warring republics of the former Yugoslavia for shared learning and collaborative projects.
  • This year also saw the launch of an ABA ROLI-established SMS platform that has blasted know-your-rights messages to more than 1,500 Syrian refugees in Turkey and allowed ABA ROLI-trained Turkish lawyers to answer about 450 SMS questions.
  • And ABA ROLI worked with the Armenian Chamber of Advocates to develop a new online learning platform that has made sustainable continuing legal education available for aspiring and practicing advocates across the country.

Promoting access to justice for marginalized populations was another focus of our work in 2015, with particular achievements in promoting sexual rights.

  • Our work to develop China’s first lawyer trainings and legal resource networks to support the country’s LGBT advocate community led to several groundbreaking lawsuits, including the first-ever LGBT employment discrimination case, a marriage equality case, and educational and censorship cases. 
  • In a similar vein, we have been working to tackle discrimination and a worrying uptick in hate crimes against Moldova’s LGBT community. Together with the country’s leading LGBT organization, GENDERDOC-M, we have advanced rights-protective legislative reform, educated judges and prosecutors on LGBT issues, supported their efforts at accountability for hate crimes, and empowered the LGBT community with relevant information. In 2015, these efforts have advanced important legislative reform and resulted in seminal hate crime convictions.

ABA ROLI continued to play a critical role as justice sector convener, leveraging partnerships and relationships throughout the justice sector in each of its countries of operation and around the world. Much as the ABA does in the United States, ABA ROLI has a unique capacity to build bridges between civil society, the legal profession and government to foster greater understanding, cultivate a rule of law culture, problem-solve across the justice sector and affect sustainable systemic reform.

  • Thus, in Libya and the Central Africa Republic, this year ABA ROLI has organized civil society input into the official constitutional reform processes that are critical to finding the path toward a peaceful future for those countries.
  • In South East Asia, after ABA ROLI consultations with civil society and government officials highlighted the nexus of corruption and trafficking in persons as a priority, we worked with the OECD to develop best practices principles to prevent and disrupt corruption associated with trafficking. The principles were tabled at the APEC Senior Officials Meetings in Cebu in August 2015 and will be a continued focus for ABA ROLI capacity building efforts in the APEC Anti-Corruption Working Group in 2016.

In a number of countries, ABA ROLI was instrumental in convening judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, other practitioners and educators to develop a common understanding of and commitment to needed justice sector reforms.

  • In Kazakhstan and Georgia, 2015 saw publication of ABA ROLI-supported manuals and commentaries on application of new criminal and criminal procedure laws, providing first-ever resources for judges and practitioners and bringing much-needed clarity and predictability to the law.
  • In Mexico, ABA ROLI helped to build wide-spread support across the justice sector and among policy-makers for draft legislation introducing mandatory bar membership and certification for lawyers. And in September we supported a series of hearings in the Mexican federal Senate, featuring testimony from 41 international experts, including ABA President Paulette Brown.
  • In China, we continued important work supporting a range of justice sector actors in combating domestic violence. ABA ROLI staff and experts provided advocates and legislators with technical assistance on China’s first national anti-domestic violence law, advancing a more broad-reaching and effective law expected to come into force in the near future. Additionally, ABA ROLI trainees and partners did groundbreaking work in advancing the rights of victims, including by creating China’s first university-based domestic violence clinics and supporting the first use of expert witnesses in domestic violence cases.

As this snapshot of our 2015 program impact reflects, this anniversary year, even as we reflected on and celebrated a full generation of rule of law promotion efforts, our focus has nonetheless been very much on the present, grappling with the complex rule of law challenges of today and innovating to meet them. 

This month, we capped off our anniversary year with adoption of a new strategic plan for ABA ROLI, placing “Learning and Leadership” for the rule of law movement as a principal focus of our work over the next five years. As we contemplate that agenda, I am delighted that our anniversary year afforded an opportunity to reconnect with ABA ROLI alumni—so many committed former staff, volunteers and partners who continue to advance our mission in work they do with dozens of implementers, donors and international organizations. Continued rule of law progress requires a network of this sort, to share lessons learned, best practices and innovative approaches. We look forward to sustaining our alumni community as a resource for our work and for the larger rule of law movement, so that together, we can continue our important work to meet today’s rule of law challenges. 

Director, ABA Rule of Law Initiative