Former State Department Adviser to Share Insights on Afghanistan in J-Term Course on Rule of Law

Abraham Sutherland

Abraham Sutherland, former rule of law adviser for the U.S. Department of State, stands with the judges of the Kunar Province in Afghanistan. Sutherland is co-teaching a January Term course at UVA Law.

January 13, 2014

A former U.S. Department of State adviser who worked to institute fair and open judicial systems in Afghanistan will share his insights with University of Virginia law students this week in the January Term course Building the Rule of Law.

Lecturer Abraham Sutherland, who was the State Department's rule of law adviser in northeast Afghanistan's Kunar Province from 2009-12, will co-instruct the weeklong short course with UVA Law Associate Professor Michael Gilbert, an expert in democratic processes and judicial decision-making. The course will not only discuss nations in transition from war, but also how developing countries facilitate the rule of law.

"It turned out to be a tremendous blessing that there was effectively no job description for what I stepped into in Kunar Province," Sutherland said. "The big picture was clear: The Afghan government needed to improve its effectiveness and public respect to better dominate the Taliban."

Sutherland said the strategy was to promote "the prestige and public visibility" of the province's justice officials through public, media-covered criminal trials.

"This reduced corruption and gave the public something to see and to respect," he said.

Michael Gilbert
Michael Gilbert

During his time in Afghanistan, Sutherland served with five successive Navy-led reconstruction teams and three Army brigade combat teams, participating in more than 450 missions. But as military intervention in the province has ceded to self-regulation by the Afghan government, questions remain over Kunar's future, he said.

"We will soon see whether the developments of the last few years persist and expand," Sutherland said. "Kunar is a difficult region and the first requirement is for the Afghan army to hold the territory."

In addition to Sutherland's experience with the State Department and a subsequent nongovernmental organization he helped found called the Afghan Legal Information Organization, he and Gilbert will teach students about the rule of law through the writings of prominent scholars and policymakers in the field.

"Our strategy will be to focus on big-picture issues that are relevant to just about every rule of law discussion," Gilbert said. "What is the rule of law exactly? Can one ever successfully promote the rule of law by force? What happens when conventional understandings of the rule of law seem to conflict with local culture?"

Gilbert, whose own experience includes consulting for the World Bank, which provides loans to developing countries, praised several of his colleagues on the Virginia Law faculty — experts in human rights, international law, national security and the development of legal institutions — for making these kinds of discussions a part of the curriculum.

"The relationship between law and development has generated a lot of interest in recent years, and UVA Law is home to some world-class experts in this area, including Deena Hurwitz, John Norton Moore and Tom Nachbar," Gilbert said. "Compared to them, I'm an amateur."

Gilbert said the idea to co-instruct the course with Sutherland originated from their long-standing friendship. They met as law students at the University of California at Berkeley, and have continued to share common interests in issues related to economics and legal development.

"It's an exciting opportunity for us, and I look forward to being in class with Abe again — this time on the other side of the podium," Gilbert said.

Sutherland, too, said he was enthusiastic about the class — not only because of the opportunity to share the lessons that he learned in Afghanistan, but also because of what he can learn from his former classmate and the presentation of the latest scholarly work in rule of law.

"My experience was purely practical and hands-on, and one reason I'm excited about this class is the opportunity to take a step back and evaluate the academic literature," Sutherland said.

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