While Wisconsin lawyers were shivering last January, I flew to Monrovia, Liberia, to participate in an anti-human trafficking training for 60 Liberian prosecutors, public defenders, and judges. As a trainer with Lawyers Without Borders, I spent a week discussing both litigation strategies and policy concerns with my new Liberian colleagues focused on their newly enacted human trafficking legislation. After meeting with the Supreme Court Chief Justice and observing their courts in action, we ten volunteer lawyers launched into a training workshop in which we taught and discussed trial practice skills such as opening statements, closing arguments, direct and cross-examination, and specific evidentiary concerns. All of the workshops were presented in the context of a mock trial case, regarding a prosecution under their new human trafficking law.
Cynthia Hirsch, DePaul 1980, served as an assistant attorney general with the Wisconsin Department of Justice from 1992 until 2016. She recently spent three months on sabbatical in southern India working for a human rights organization advocating against public corruption and human rights violations.
My new Liberian friends told me that in Liberia their legal education does not usually include such practical experiential training and they typically learn to litigate by jumping in to the courtroom arena. They seemed appreciative of our effort to bring them this weeklong workshop, designed in the training style of the National Institute of Trial Advocacy (NITA). Of course, we benefited and learned as much, if not more, than they did.
Liberia, many will recall, has a major connection to the U.S. In the early 1800s freed slaves were sent by the ship load to Liberia. These individuals and their descendants constituted an educated elite who governed Liberia for over 100 years, until a military coup in 1980. A series of violent conflicts followed, destabilizing the country until 2005, when current president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was elected in what many would characterize as Liberia’s first fair election. She has managed to collaboratively bring peace and democracy to this small but very proud country.
The Liberian Constitution, along with the United Nations treaties to which they are signatories, guarantee the Liberian people all of the same basic rights that we appreciate in the U.S. However, a limited infrastructure and drastically diminished resources create challenges to implementing proper courtroom procedures and guaranteeing these precious rights. In a country that struggles with a 50 percent literacy rate and extreme unemployment and poverty, a well-run legal system respectful of fair procedures and guaranties seems almost out of reach. Yet, with both pragmatism and optimism, these professionals came to our workshop, engaged with us and displayed earnest efforts to improve their system and skills. Best of all, we laughed together a lot – as lawyers with more of a common language and perspective than I might have expected.
At our meeting with him, the Liberian Chief Judge thanked us for coming to Liberia with this training program. He commented on the importance to his country of attention to the rule of law. Without that attention, he said, corruption and mistrust will undermine peace. He believes that attention to rule of law, within a properly managed court system, will lead to a sustained peace.
Lawyers Without Borders is a nonprofit organization that relies heavily on volunteer lawyers to, as their motto states, “cross borders to make a difference.” Their staff and volunteers did an excellent job of creating materials that prepared us to better understand Liberia’s history and the cultural and economic challenges it faces. In addition they prepared detailed materials that we brought with us to distribute as resources for the participants. If you are interested in knowing more about this exemplary group, contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.