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Building Sudan's Justice System

by sarah auerbach

Sean Lees '99 doesn't like it when his friends back in the states call him a "hero." Yes, his work can be dangerous. He lives and works in the Darfur region of Sudan, where civil war has killed an estimated 200,000 - 300,000 people and displaced as many as 2.4 million from their homes. The walled compound in which Lees and his wife live has been locked down. He has lain on the floor of his house while gunfire raged outside. He and a colleague once ran into a gunfight to bring a UN vehicle under cover.

Dangerous, yes, but heroic? "That doesn't sit very comfortably with me," says Lees. "Because I know that I haven't suffered or faced the kind of fear that is commonplace in Darfur. The real heroes are the lawyers that I work with - the lawyers that take perpetrators to task in sensitive, conflict-related criminal cases.  They don't go home with UN protection after a hard-earned case is won."
The nature of Lees' job discourages heroism. Lees works for the United Nations Development Programme's Rule of Law organization, helping the Sudanese people sustain a formal justice system so they can seek redress for crimes like rape and homicide. Much of Lees' time is spent training and educating Sudanese paralegals, lawyers, and judges and establishing judicial precedents one case at a time. It is not Lees' job to be the Sudanese justice system. In fact, if Lees and his colleagues do their work properly, they will be able to melt away into history, turning his justice-making efforts to local civil society organizations.

To illustrate the nature of his work, Lees tells the story of Kadeeja, a Sudanese woman in her thirties who grew up with the traditional-mediation system of settling disputes. In a village like hers, if someone's brother was killed, the perpetrator might provide two camels as compensation to the living sibling. The surviving brother might think as follows, says Lees: What good does it do me to imprison the murderer? I've lost my brother, the person who has protected me and shared resources with me. I need to be compensated for that loss. While people accustomed to a formal justice system might see that as a perversion of justice, says Lees, in a rural setting, it's "quite just indeed."

Kadeeja's traditional existence came to an end when the residents of her village fled to escape an attack by the government-sponsored Janjaweed militia. The villagers trudged miles overnight and eventually took refuge in tents made from plastic sheeting in a camp for "internally displaced persons."  The violence there began in 2003 as a series of land-and-water disputes between nomadic Arabs and settled black African farmers. Without a strong traditional system to solve disputes, the conflict raged out of control, spawning rebel groups and prompting government attacks on rebels and civilians--like the one on Kadeeja's village.

Once Kadeeja and the villagers were settled in their camp, trainers from an international NGO set up a gigantic straw shelter in which the displaced villagers could sit and learn about justice and human rights.

"It floored Kadeeja to hear that women had rights," says Lees.

Kadeeja signed up to become a paralegal, was trained in human rights and justice issues, and began in turn to train her fellow displaced persons. She began to rise in the esteem of her friends and family and was allowed to mediate cases in the community. Eventually, she became a sheika, or female sheik.

When she mediates cases, Kadeeja, with Lees' team's guidance, tries to achieve outcomes that are consistent with international human rights norms. When she can't mediate--when the perpetrator refuses to accommodate the rights of the victim--she refers the case to the Rule of Law program. Lees' team, among other things, educates judges and lawyers about past human rights cases so that each new case that tests the budding justice system can itself become a precedent for the future.

Before he became a manager, Lees, like Kadeeja, used to work in the camps among the plastic tents. Now he describes his workplace--which, like his mud-brick home, is within the confines of a gated compound--as not dissimilar from a typical American office. That said, Lees encounters challenges that aren't typical of the American workplace. "Here it's difficult to plan anything because the infrastructure is bad," he says. "And appreciation for time and deadlines is different here, so you may tell someone, ‘We're going to plan this big training of people on this legal topic, can you be ready on this date and at this time?' and the answer is ‘Yes, yes, yes,' and then nobody shows up, the handouts aren't done, the electricity is out, you're trying to call the sheiks who are supposed to show up, and you realize the phones are down."

And there are other challenges. Not all the Sudanese paralegals Lees supervises are "gung-ho" for human rights. So Lees must slowly, patiently, sensitize them to a set of values they had never considered before. "Instead of reprimanding them, instead of discrediting a paralegal's belief in his core beliefs, I had to say, ‘Did you consider that this might be inconsistent with human rights?'" says Lees.

Beyond his workplace challenges, Lees's life in Sudan is often hot, inconvenient, and uncomfortable. But his passion for the work keeps him going. "We're having a real impact on the lives of the most vulnerable populations in Darfur, and that's very satisfying."

He advises recent BC Law graduates and current students to follow their passions, not their financial worries. "Don't let those bills be the reason why you take that job, don't let your debt move you to take jobs you don't enjoy. As long as you stay true to yourself and your interests and your passions you're going to be fine."

If passion is what keeps Lees going despite the discomfort, despite the danger, despite the difficulties, then passion is also what brings him closer to heroism than he would like to admit. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer."