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January 01, 2013

From the Bench: Grappling with Liberia’s Legal Issues

An American judge travels into the heat and confusion of Liberia with Lawyers Without Borders.

Hon. Virginia M. Kendall

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We have not stopped sweating since we landed and walked into the tiny two-room airport past the guards with AK-47s. It is hot here in Liberia, a country that remains “off the grid” from years of internal conflict and strife. A small rectangular machine looking more like a water cooler than an air conditioner stands in one corner of the room, and three of us head there for the weak cool breeze it is attempting to emit in the steamy overcrowded waiting area. When we leave the airport for Monrovia, we pass the bombed-out buildings that have long since been abandoned during tougher years, their pockmarked façades broken down first by bullets and then by neglect. Our team is filled with enthusiasm and hope, even though we are wilting in the sun.

We are an interesting bunch traveling with Lawyers Without Borders (LWOB): federal judges, professors, trial advocacy instructors, big-firm lawyers, and volunteers. We come from across the country having left full dockets and piles of work. All of us try to keep the BlackBerry connected and answer the emails that will continue to come in—this is, after all, not vacation, and work must still be completed. Others wait until the later hours of the night when the city hums, literally, from the generators powering the strange blue-gray glow of fluorescent bulbs dotting the streets. The city comes to life at night as the temperature drops. Where were these people during the day?

Wearing Suits in the Heat

The morning brings the Liberian judges and lawyers to the hotel, some in cars with drivers, others walking up the dirt streets behind the building. They are coming for training on human trafficking. Dressed sharply in business suits with jackets and pressed shirts even in the oppressive heat, they respect their position and know how important it is to this country seeking to establish itself once again with a smart and efficient judicial system in the wake of such loss of life and the inevitable flight of those who could leave during the violence. Remarkably, or maybe not so much, many of the judges are women coming to learn how to protect their children and sisters. They politely file into chairs in a room where the instructors have gathered, greeting them as they enter, introducing themselves, learning names. Some are familiar faces from the last session, and hugs are exchanged.

The instructors have worked for months on the material, have researched the country, have prepared the hand-outs and the materials along with the top-notch team from LWOB. Through some miracle of coincidence, LWOB—and, along with it, its trainers—is the only group in the world, other than Liberia’s own Ministry of Justice, that has access to every court decision reported in the country, ever, and later the chief justice will express his gratitude when presented with copies of the case digests that he can now distribute to his judges. After work each night, the trainers have pored over the local laws, case decisions, the geography, the news—all of this will be critical in making the training relevant. Even after the weeks of preparation, the instructors crammed more into the arduous 15-hour plane ride across the ocean. As the rest of the passengers slept, a few lone lights dotted the plane— instructors tweaking PowerPoints, rewording a presentation, or merely cramming one more law journal article into an overly tired brain. Now it is game time.

Instantly, the discussions focus on Liberia’s laws, Liberia’s evidence, Liberia’s issues. We are not here to teach U.S. law; we are here to empower, engage, and enlighten. We are here to share best practices across an ocean and a few time zones. We are here acknowledging that we too are learning this complex, confusing, maddening crime that we call human trafficking. We recognize that even with our training, our technology, our laws, and our abilities, we share the same concerns for victims. Animated discussion erupts when we discuss the psychology of the victimization—how girls are coerced, controlled, manipulated, and broken down. The trainers listen sadly to the real-life stories of young girls being taken from their homes and promised a better life across the border only to end up as prostitutes in a land far away. Even across this great difference in cultures, we see many of the same mechanisms being employed: debt bondage, parental manipulation, lies, confinement, isolation, denigration.

Theory and Reality

Over the lunch break, we share ideas about how certain problems might be solved. We talk about where the barriers are to erecting new models for effective prosecution, efficient victim resources, and public awareness. We talk about how trials might be more efficient and how trial judges might be more responsive to handling these kinds of cases in their courtrooms. During our talks, we recognize how fortunate we are back home to be able to turn to a network of colleagues who have shared interests in protecting women and children from human rights violations, and we are overwhelmed at our sisters and brothers in Liberia who have the same desire, the same passion to effectuate change, and yet have so few resources to do so. These faces of courage and determination are clearly the faces of a judiciary and a legal community committed to bringing Liberia to a new level of jurisprudence.

We laugh over some of them, like the police officer who transports a prisoner from jail to the courthouse while the prisoner holds on to the back of the officer’s motorbike only until the prisoner rolls the bike and escapes. Clearly, we think we must be able to solve that problem. But as the list of possibilities diminishes as quickly as the government funds that might be able to solve the problem, we realize we are in a whole new world of problem solving. We cry too as we listen to the story of the father who walks 60 miles to bring his minor daughter to court to testify against her accuser only to have the court case rescheduled and the child brought home to her village. The likelihood of her father being able to leave his crops and bring her back to court again are small, and her chances of receiving justice even smaller if she does not return.

This is Lawyers Without Borders, founded in 2000 by Christina Storm. It has recruited a unique group of the world’s smartest lawyers, experienced judges, professionals, and volunteers who dare to make a difference in a country that was once thought to be the promised land for freed slaves from the United States. The irony of conducting human trafficking training in this African country comprising ancestors of freed slaves is not lost on either the training team or the Liberians. Now many of the ancestors of those slaves have fled the internal wars that have left the country struggling to rebuild. Those who have stayed, however, are filled with hope and determination. They know that they are a beacon for other African countries. They have one of the highest literacy rates of any of the African countries, and in spite of the loss of academics and leaders during the civil war, they point to the return of some and the resurgence of the legal community as a leader in protecting the human rights of women and children. The LWOB team will provide as much training, support, and resources as it can to support that hope and that reality.

Day one is done in Liberia, and the exhausted trainers amble back to their rooms to start the day’s work back home—the blinking red BlackBerry light demanding attention. There will be no rest until the “real job” is completed for the night. This is no vacation. There is much to be done tomorrow both here and abroad.

Hon. Virginia M. Kendall

The author is a district judge in the Northern District of Illinois, Chicago.