Extreme poverty, a fragile infrastructure, endemic corruption: these are but some of the challenges the West African nation of Liberia is grappling with, the legacy of a devastating civil war in the 1990s. The list of challenges may be long, but as The Fletcher School’s Louis Aucoin has discovered, the appetite to tackle them is growing – particularly when it comes to the rule of law.
Aucoin, a professor of practice and academic director of Fletcher’s LLM program, returned to academics this semester after a one-year appointment as the United Nations’ Deputy Special Representative to the Secretary-General for Rule of Law in Liberia. In this role, he was responsible for all justice sector activities of the U.N. Mission, one of the U.N.’s largest peacekeeping operations. His portfolio included Liberia’s legal and judicial systems, the corrections systems, the U.N. police force and human rights.
“One of the most important activities that I undertook there was to encourage the initiation of a constitution-making process. After all, what could be more important for rule of law than the constitutional charter which provides the legal framework for all the country’s affairs,” said Aucion, who has advised several countries on rule of law issues, including Haiti, East Timor, Rwanda and Kosovo.
“So many issues come down to the extreme poverty of the country and corruption,” he said.
One of his main accomplishments, according to Aucoin, was helping to launch the constitutional reform process. He met with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, offering advice on best practices in constitution-writing from around the world.
Aucoin said a key question surrounding the reform was whether the process would only address a few discreet issues or be much broader, perhaps even drafting an entirely new constitution.
“It was very clear to me and others…that there was quite a consensus outside the government that everyone wanted it to be broad,” Aucoin said. “There was a sense of frustration among the people, who had the view that they had never been involved in the creation of their constitution and would like a process that gave them a voice.”
With President Sirleaf, he said he tried to emphasize the value of public participation as well as the extent to which it was an “African phenomenon.”
“Many African countries had successfully used this model of constitutional reform, South Africa being the paradigm,” he noted.
During his tenure, Aucoin also tried to address the problem of child rape, which he described as “mind-boggling in its amount and frequency.”
“Rape is perhaps the number one criminal problem in Liberia, with the majority of cases involving minor girls,” he said.
The conviction rate in cases of child rape is almost zero, partly due to poor forensics and partly due to African customary law, he said, under which the family of the perpetrator provides financial compensation to the victim’s family. Such arrangements are often brokered by traditional community leaders, who receive a percentage of the compensation for their services.
“Once that happens, there’s a conspiracy of silence…by the time it goes to trial, no witnesses come forward because they have engaged in a financial settlement,” Aucoin said. “Everything goes back to poverty.”
Though discussion of rape is typically taboo in Liberia, Aucoin said he brought it to the forefront by convening a two-day conference with key ministers, Supreme Court justices and community leaders. The group discussed how to combat child rape not just from a legal perspective but from a public awareness perspective as well.
“It was the first time this had been done, and people were so grateful that we organized it,” Aucoin said.
In addition to long-term challenges, Aucoin focused on more immediate concerns within the Liberian justice system, such as the terrible conditions of the country’s prison system. Many prisoners were suffering from malnutrition, sometimes receiving only one bowl of rice a day. Although the government provided funds to superintendents to purchase food and equipment, those funds disappeared, he said, “leaving almost nothing for the prisoners.”
He worked closely with the U.N. World Food Programme and the Ministry of Justice to identify a supplier to deliver rice and beans so that prisoners could have at least two meals per day. He also began negotiating with the Ministry of Finance to include prisons as potential beneficiaries of a nationwide crop buyback program, to guarantee a steady food supply.
Liberia faces significant work to strengthen the rule of law, Aucoin said, particularly regarding reconciliation and prosecuting perpetrators of the civil war, which lasted on and off from 1989 to 2003. But he is hopeful about the possibilities for change in the wake of the conviction of Liberian warlord Charles Taylor by a U.N. tribunal for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in neighboring Sierra Leone.
“When I arrived [in Liberia], it was clear there was no appetite for the prosecution of the atrocities that had been committed. What changed was the Charles Taylor trial. After his conviction, a strong voice in the press emerged, saying ‘how come Sierra Leone got justice and we didn’t?’” Aucion said. “That gave me the thought that maybe we’re moving closer to the moment where people will want prosecution.”
Back at Fletcher, Aucoin said he is drawing on his experiences to inform a seminar he teaches on transitional justice. He’s encouraging of students who wish to pursue careers in the area of law and development.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to really have an impact on society in a very positive way,” he said. “What could be more important than the legal framework that guides a society both in terms of public sector concerns like human rights and also private sector concerns?”
-- Emily Simon, MALD '13 Candidate