The following opinion piece appeared in the International Herald Tribune. James A. Goldston is executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative.
In a world beset by terrorist violence, natural disasters and war, small signs of progress are often overlooked. So it's no surprise that even as Western donors spend millions to foster the "rule of law" from Baghdad to Bolivia, recent advances across three continents have attracted little notice.
In each instance, ordinary people, with extraordinary courage, have gone to court to rectify a government injustice. And each time, the judiciary in Africa, Europe, and Latin America has responded just as the civics textbooks prescribe: with wisdom, reason and a touch of humanity. The results—landmark judgments vindicating fundamental human rights—demonstrate that independent courts rendering impartial justice are more than a pipe dream.
The first case comes from the Dominican Republic, where the government has for decades denied citizenship and all the public benefits that flow from it to tens of thousands of Dominican-born (and often darker-skinned) ethnic Haitians, despite the Constitution's promise of citizenship to all native-born residents. Several years ago, two girls of Haitian descent denied Dominican birth certificates and the right to attend public school brought a legal challenge.
On Oct. 7, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, a regional tribunal with jurisdiction throughout the Americas, ruled for the first time that governments may not discriminate on the basis of race in granting citizenship. The court held that the government's discriminatory policies left the girls and thousands of others like them effectively stateless, in breach of international law. The court ordered the government to reform its birth registration system; to open school doors to all children, including those of Haitian descent; and to pay monetary damages.
Three weeks later, across the Atlantic, a district court in Bulgaria's capital, Sofia, made history. Echoing the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education, the Bulgarian court affirmed that racial segregation in education is unlawful. The case concerned School 103, located in the Roma ghetto of Filipovtsi. Like many other ghetto schools in Bulgaria, School 103 is attended only by Roma students and suffers from substandard material conditions and educational performance. The court found that racially discriminatory patterns of school assignment violated Bulgaria's newly enacted antidiscrimination legislation, which faithfully incorporates European Union requirements. As Bulgaria prepares for EU accession, the decision is significant not only for the children at School 103, but for the thousands of Roma across Europe shunted into second-class schools and denied equal educational opportunities.
Finally, just this week, a federal high court judge in Nigeria authorized a groundbreaking lawsuit that seeks to lift the asylum status of the former Liberian ruler and warlord Charles Taylor. In March 2003, Taylor was indicted by the UN-mandated Special Court for Sierra Leone for his contribution to crimes of murder, rape and mutilation during that country's decade-long civil war. Shortly thereafter, Taylor was granted asylum by Nigeria's president, Olusegun Obasanjo, and he has since resided in a private compound in the Nigerian city of Calabar.
In May 2004, two Nigerian nationals petitioned Nigeria's high court to overturn the grant of asylum. The men had had their arms chopped off in Freetown by soldiers of the Taylor-supported Revolutionary United Front. Rather than shelter Taylor, they argued, Nigeria must prosecute him or send him to the special court to face trial. In rejecting the government's objections, the high court held that the claimants had a right to sue for redress so long as Taylor enjoyed asylum. The government has said it will appeal. Whatever the outcome, the decision stands as a powerful example of an independent court standing up to strong political currents.
What do these cases teach?
First, in an era marred by the resort to force as an arbiter of disputes, the law as applied by capable judges still counts.
Second, don't underestimate the power of civil society. Each of these cases was made possible by the determined persistence of victims, private aid groups and lawyers working for little pay and at great risk.
Third, now comes the real test. These rulings have articulated with the full legal authority that only courts possess basic principles that governments may not breach. But the challenge is to enforce them. Will Bulgaria desegregate its school system? Will the Dominican Republic grant citizenship to its ethnic Haitian minority? Will Nigeria turn Charles Taylor over to the Special Court for Sierra Leone? Supporters of the rule of law will be watching.
Copyright © 2005 by the International Herald Tribune.