Learning and Teaching at the Same Time with Uzbekistan’s Judiciary
Retirement from a rewarding career opens a door to new experiences in Central Asia
By Tony Barash
When one door closes, another opens. This axiom came to mean a great deal to me when I retired in 2002 as general counsel of Bowater Incorporated in Greenville, South Carolina. I had an itch to combine my years of experience with international public service, and my work with the bar led me to the American Bar Association Central European and Eurasian Law Initiative (CEELI). As a new retiree with energy, initiative and drive, I have found CEELI to be the perfect fit for me.
Tashkent, Uzbekistan, has been my home away from home since May 29, 2003, when I arrived to begin a year as a pro bono Rule of Law Liaison for CEELI. Tashkent is a city of 2.5 million in the heart of what was once Soviet Central Asia. This region, largely Muslim in heritage, is famous for being part of the ancient Silk Road from China to Italy. Twelve years after declaring independence from the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan continues to serve as a transit route and cultural bridge between east and west, as it shares borders with Kazakhstan to the north, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to the east, and Afghanistan and Turkmenistan to the south. Uzbekistan has a history and culture that is thousands of years old. Though many traditions and customs are vastly different from my personal experience, I find them incredibly fascinating and the people to be well educated and highly literate.
Since I first landed in Tashkent, I have spent my time concentrating on judicial reform programs — work that has afforded me the opportunity to build relationships with inspiring individuals who are struggling to improve the quality of the judiciary and raise its status in their country’s legal system.
With the help of an Uzbek staff attorney and program assistant, I work closely with the judiciary of Uzbekistan, the Supreme Court, the Higher Economic Court and the Uzbekistan Association of Judges to implement judicial reform initiatives. We facilitate trainings for judges throughout the country on human rights, judicial administration, judicial ethics, judicial selection and education and judicial independence.
Despite a woeful economy, a repressive government, a history of public corruption and abuse of human rights, Uzbekistan is a fascinating country with warm and welcoming people, many of whom courageously, and against long odds, fight for a richer and better life — for themselves and for their countrymen.
Three months into my tour of duty, I accompanied a team of Uzbek judges on a Judicial Ethics Study Tour to Washington, D.C. Through a competitive process, CEELI selected eight judges from around the country to study U.S. and international judicial ethical standards. The trip was touch-and-go until just before we left Uzbekistan, due to the significance of the issue, the intense interest of the Uzbekistan and U.S. governments in the trip, and newly restrictive U.S. visa requirements. But once we were in Washington, watching the team coalesce – hearing their questions and insights as they met with U.S. judges, ethics commissioners and lawyers, toured court facilities, and discussed issues of common interest with U.S. government officials – was one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. The judges bonded, reached consensus on their goals for ethics reform in Uzbekistan and planned a path forward starting immediately upon their return to the country.
The apparent success of our late August study tour opened many doors, and during the Fall, our staff attorney, program assistant and I traveled throughout the country to conduct workshops, roundtables and seminars on judicial ethics and judicial independence. The judges from the study tour are very active and involved in our work, writing articles, traveling, and speaking out on the subject, and the audiences have been very enthusiastic and interactive. By the end of October, we had spoken to over half of Uzbekistan’s judges, often accompanied by the former Supreme Court Chair, who recently assumed an unpaid leadership position with the Judges Association to work on judicial reform.
We have also been working directly with the Supreme Court and the Higher Economic Court on these issues, with much support from both Courts and the Ministry of Justice in our efforts. There have been many articles in local, national and legal papers (including the Supreme Court newspaper), interviews, and a great piece produced by the Supreme Court press officer on national TV. We compiled a 110-page book of U.S. and international resource materials on judicial ethics that was well received at the seminars and generated provocative discussion. We also will organize programs on judicial outreach to the media and the public.
Contrary to many expatriates who often seem cynical about the prospects for human rights and legal reform in Uzbekistan, I remain enthusiastic and optimistic about judicial reform in this country. Helping in the transformation of deep-rooted political, social and cultural behavior patterns is an agonizingly slow process, but we can make an impact. And that is particularly true with respect to judicial reform in Uzbekistan.