Since early 1993, the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) became one of the first foreign technical assistance providers to arrive in the newly independent nation of Macedonia. Most recently, from 2011 to 2015, with support from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), ABA ROLI increased access to justice for Macedonian citizens by improving the quality of legal defense and strengthening the Macedonian Bar Association. Through the program, ABA ROLI provided trainings focused on the application of Macedonia’s 2013 Criminal Procedure Code (CPC), which significantly altered the role of the defense advocate, judge and prosecutor, and provided more substantial protections for criminal defendants. ABA ROLI’s trainings for defense advocates addressed forensic investigation, case preparation, plea bargaining and trial advocacy to enhance the quality of criminal defense in the country.
The Macedonian Young Lawyers Association provides legal assistance to migrants and refugees on the Macedonian-Greece border.
Over the years, ABA ROLI has developed close working relationships with leaders in the legal profession and a number of legal nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and has implemented various bilateral and regional programs. A key to ABA ROLI’s programmatic success has been its long-standing partnership with local organizations, such as the Macedonian Young Lawyers Association (MYLA). In October, ABA ROLI program staff discussed MYLA’s work in Macedonia with Martina Smilevska, President of MYLA and Program Manager - Refugees and Migrants Rights Program, Nazif Avdi, Project Officer – U.S. Agency for International Development Refugee and Migrants Human Rights Protection Project, and Svetlana Kjoseva, Project Assistant – “Raise your voice for discrimination free society project”. Together, they collaboratively answered the following questions:
What is MYLA and when was it formed?
The Macedonian Young Lawyers Association is а nongovernmental, nonprofit and nonpolitical professional organization of lawyers established in December 2003 aiming to strengthen the contribution of the young lawyers in promoting the legal profession and fulfilling the principle of the rule of law in Macedonia. The organization was primarily founded on grounds to guide young lawyers towards their legal careers from the point of graduation; however, during the years MYLA has transformed itself into a unique organization that actively protects human rights and the rule of law principle through utilization of the knowledge and capacity of young lawyers. It is necessary to mention that MYLA was established with the assistance of ABA ROLI, formerly known as ABA CEELI.
What was the last program you cooperated with ABA ROLI on?
Most recently, MYLA cooperated in 2014 on the Macedonia Defense Bar program, where it received a sub-grant to produce an assessment of the perceptions and expectations from the new CPC which came into force in December 2013 after several postponements/delays. The activity consisted of gathering information from key actors involved — judges, public prosecutors and defense attorneys — on the successes, gaps and challenges they face in application/implementation of the new CPC in Macedonia as well as identify possible support they might need to increase their performance.
If this assessment were to be replicated in 2016, would results change in your opinion?
Macedonia is currently facing a political crisis that will hopefully be resolved after the December 11, 2016 elections. In our opinion, access to institutions, procedures and justice has halted or is even worse than five years ago. Taking into account the latest developments in the country and challenges in enforcing the CPC, a working group has been established to work on the preparation of amendments of the CPC. Currently, no draft version has been released. Based on unconfirmed information, it is assumed that a significant percentage of the current CPC will be changed in the future, most likely after the elections and establishment of the new Parliament.
No independent assessment on access to justice in Macedonia has been prepared in the last few years, excluding the annual reports of the U.S. Department of State and European Union. Taking into account the latest developments in the country, access to justice has become a continuous issue. Even though the citizens are to a certain extent aware of their rights, the path to access those rights is full of obstacles. Some of the most common include: shifting from one institution to another; retroactive application of regulations; the will of the officials working for the respective institution; change frequency of the laws and regulations without a proper informational campaign; political influence of the public administration and courts, adoption of decisions with poor arguments or justification that are not in line with domestic laws; adopting oral decisions/outcomes without issuing written documentation to the clients thus limiting or excluding them from the use of legal remedy; selective justice; occasional adopting of arbitral decisions (not based on law), etc. All of the above contribute in weakening the legal system in Macedonia. Thus, conducting an assessment on access to justice is of crucial necessity as it might give a clearer picture into the current justice system needs in Macedonia and identify interventions that will be needed to heal the system and bring it on the right track.
What was your most memorable cooperation/program with ABA ROLI and why?
MYLA has been a member of ABA ROLI’s Balkans Regional Rule of Law Network (BRRLN) since its launch in 2014. BRRLN works to encourage the region’s bar associations and civil society organizations (CSOs) to collaborate and to share knowledge, best practices and tools. By working together, bar associations and CSOs are strengthening the rule of law and respect for human rights in democratic societies.
Tell us more about your current access to justice work in Macedonia?
MYLA has been registered with the Ministry of Justice since 2011 as an organization able to provide free legal aid according to the Law on Free Legal Aid in Macedonia. Since then, MYLA has participated in several projects, including one with the European Instrument for Democracy and Human rights (EIDHR) that aimed at promoting the right to free legal aid and making it enforceable in practice. Under the EIDHR project, for instance, MYLA together with the Foundation Open Society Macedonia and other CSOs created the Access to Justice Network (for more info, see here: http://pristapdopravda.mk/). The project also produced several reports, policy briefs and analysis that pointed out the strengths and weaknesses of the state funded legal aid system and suggested improvement recommendations. Since 2012, MYLA has been a part of the Triple A: Access to Information, Advice, and legal Aid project which through local CSOs has increased rights awareness of thousands of citizens across the Western Balkans, including Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro and Turkey, as well as focused on advocacy to promote legislative changes and increased funding to Triple A services, including free legal aid.
In terms of legal assistance to refugees and asylum seekers, in 2010, MYLA started cooperating with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the provision of legal assistance, representation and integration of refugees, asylum seekers and stateless persons which continues to this day. In the past six years, MYLA lawyers have interviewed and represented more than 10,000 asylum seekers. MYLA has developed significant cooperation with the national authorities and has closely followed the development of the asylum system in the country and took an active role in the debate regarding the amendments of the Law on Asylum and Temporary Protection, as well as the Law on Foreigners. Since mid-2015 MYLA has had an everyday presence in the transit centers on the southern and the northern border. During the height of the refugee crisis on the Balkan Route in 2015, MYLA staff provided assistance to around 3,000 on a daily basis. MYLA continues to protect the rights and access to justice of refugees and asylum seekers and under the USAID Migrant and Refugee Human Rights Protection Project it will work to improve assistance and services provided to migrants and refugees in, or transiting through Macedonia, with a particular focus on vulnerable groups and protecting their human rights in line with international standards.
In what ways has your cooperation with ABA ROLI improved access to justice programming in Macedonia?
Our cooperation with ABA ROLI on access to justice has enabled us to prepare and train young lawyers and attorneys to deal with the daily challenges the legal profession brings and upgrade their knowledge and skills in arguing and defending their clients. Thanks to the trainings provided, attorneys, judges and prosecutors were equipped with new skills and knowledge to cope with the development and transformation of the legal system, particularly the criminal procedure code from an inquisitorial to adversarial system. Ultimately, this transformation of the system should bring more qualitative legal services to clients and/or accused persons in the way of equality of arms, fair trail and burden of proof as both of the parties are in charge of the procedure while the judges should remain neutral and leave the parties to cross their arguments and evidences.
Additionally, the BRRLN network enables engagement and communication among the attorneys from the region with the possibility to share information and exchange practices thus striving to build a long-term sustainable criminal system along the Balkan Region that will enhance the protection of client rights and accused persons. This network of communication among bars that did not exist before provides ground for a joint approach in reforming the criminal system.
To learn more about our work in Macedonia, please contact the ABA Rule of Law Initiative at [email protected].