2007 Archive

O'Brien '91 Appointed Co-Chair of Justice Reform Partnership with Afghanistan

Boalt alumnus Robert O'Brien has been selected to help lead an effort to revitalize Afghanistan's legal system.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently appointed O'Brien '91 to co-chair the State Department's new Public-Private Partnership for Justice Reform in Afghanistan. With financial and educational assistance from America's legal community, the partnership will use training programs and related activities to help prosecutors, defense lawyers, and judges modernize their practices.

"It will take more than military might to bring stability and peace to that area," says O'Brien, the partner-in-charge at the Los Angeles office of Arent Fox and a former U.S. Alternate Representative to the United Nations. "One of the key foundations for a prosperous and free Afghanistan is having the rule of law in place. Ultimately, that's something the Afghans themselves have to establish. We looked for opportunities they identified to us to assist them in that process."

The State Department is working with the private sector to cover costs of the overhaul, estimated at $500 million over the next five years. U.S. law firms and lawyers contributing $50,000 or more over two years will join senior State Department officials and other interagency partners for a press conference, regular briefings and other events.

Although Afghanistan has made some strides building its legal infrastructure since ousting the Taliban in 2001, major upgrades are still needed, especially in education and professional development. During a ceremony launching the partnership on December 13, Rice said that "establishing a fair, democratic, and transparent justice system in Afghanistan is essential to the country's success," and that "there is much work remaining to be done."

O'Brien co-chairs the partnership with Thomas Schweich, U.S. Coordinator for Counternarcotics and Justice Reform in Afghanistan. Meeting with State Department and Afghan officials, they targeted low-cost, high-impact programs designed to generate lasting change. Partnership leaders are planning an initial visit to Kabul and Jalalabad with some U.S. federal judges in February to meet Afghan attorneys and observe their training.

This summer in Utah, the partnership will lead a four-week program on trial and investigatory techniques for 15 to 20 Afghan prosecutors so these lawyers can return to Afghanistan and share what they learned. Similar programs are being designed for Afghan judges, defense lawyers, and officers of the country's fledgling bar association.

"We expect this to be a national effort on the training front," says O'Brien, whose own work focuses on commercial litigation and domestic and international arbitration. "We expect to draw instructors from the federal judiciary and assistant U.S. attorneys, and we'll reach out to law firms participating with us on a financial basis, asking them to select partners and associates to assist us on the substantive legal issues."

The partnership will also seek to train judges through the Afghan Women Judges Association, expand Afghanistan's Legal Aid Organization, and bolster the newly-created Afghan Prosecutors Association and Afghan Bar Association. The State Department has developed other public-private partnerships in areas such as pediatric AIDS, athletic clinics for underprivileged children in Africa, and land-mine clearing in conflict zones. O'Brien hopes this partnership will bring overdue stability to a disjointed and often dysfunctional legal system.

"This is a unique and special opportunity for American lawyers to participate financially and to lend their expertise," he says. "Their brethren in Afghanistan are putting their lives on the line every day for things that we take for granted. Judges, especially female judges, are not always welcome in that culture. And in many instances, defense lawyers literally risk their lives trying to give people fair trials."

O'Brien's interest in international law began to crystallize at Boalt, particularly during his work with Professor David Caron '83, who he says "has always been a mentor." During O'Brien's one-year term as U.S. Alternate Representative to the United Nations, he assisted then-U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton and represented the nation's interests before General Assembly committees. Now, he faces his most challenging international law endeavor yet.

"It's a real privilege and I feel real honored to participate," O'Brien says. "I hope other law firms recognize that this effort to help establish a democratic, free, stable Afghanistan is critically important to the United States. This is a bi-partisan initiative and deserves support from across the political spectrum."

– By Andrew Cohen