Louise Rachlis talks to Stuart Hendin about his dangerous mission in the war-torn country
Ottawa lawyer Stuart Hendin has returned home after spending more than four months in Afghanistan training lawyers and judges as an international training adviser in Kabul for the International Development Law Organization (IDLO).
An expert on the law of armed conflict and human rights law, Hendin teaches morality and ethics at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston and at the Canadian Forces College in North York.
His experience in Afghanistan has been an incredible contrast to his life in Canada.
“When you undertake something like this, you always go with the very best of intentions and you think you can make a difference,” said Hendin, 69, who spoke with the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin on his return from Afghanistan last month.
“However, the overwhelming obstacles of trying to implement changes in the rule of law in Afghanistan are depressing. Afghan society has been in a state of armed conflict for 40 years and they are in a survival mentality. The default position and fallback excuse for everything is, ‘This is Afghanistan.’ You run into a brick wall.”
The IDLO mission is to enable governments and to empower people to reform laws and strengthen institutions to promote peace, justice, sustainable development and economic opportunity and their international training advisers are responsible for the oversight of the organization and delivery of criminal justice training for judges, prosecutors, defence lawyers and investigators, as well as for follow-up coaching of training participants.
The organization, headquartered in Rome, has extensive experience in countries emerging from conflict or striving towards democracy. Increasingly, it is also working in emerging economies and middle-income countries to strengthen their legal capacity for sustainable development and economic opportunity.
Since 2001, IDLO has been working as a lead partner of the Afghan government in justice and legal reform.
International training advisers are required to have extensive experience working in a post-conflict country, and to have “the emotional strength” and willingness to work in a difficult environment.
Security is always “a very real concern.” The Taverna restaurant involved in the recent bombing in Kabul was the first place Hendin had been taken on his first night in the city, and he was there numerous times since.
“Kamal, the owner of the restaurant was the most gracious gentleman,” he said. “The casualty list would have been much greater 20 minutes later when a large group of Russians were expected,” Hendin said.
“The issue of vulnerability for all of us who work [there] is a very real one, particularly when we do simple things like going out to places of work outside our compounds or when we go to one of the few stores that our security personnel view as safe.”
The insurgents can hit any place they want, he said.
The morning he was leaving to come back to Canada, he could hear the blast and see the smoke from his bedroom window when an Afghan National Army bus across the street was hit.
“Our compound was on the exit route, so, at any time, I would hear helicopters coming directly over my bedroom. You got to know the sound of the different helicopters. The Americans also had fish-eye cameras on tethered balloons for surveillance purposes.”
Whenever he travelled, it was in an armoured car with GPS so that his security officials knew where he was at all times.
“It’s a heavily armed compound with double barricades. It’s a completely different environment. It’s just not a safe environment. And, as it gets closer to the election, it gets worse.
“The insurgency is effectively saying it’s not the number of people they’re going to kill, but that they want to show no place is safe. Wherever you want to go, that place will be targeted. It’s the most complex society, and corruption is systemic from the bottom up and the top down. That’s something those of us who work in the West have trouble comprehending.”
In his first week there, he visited a senior prosecutor in Kabul who was wearing a tailored suit and a Rolex watch.
“He asked me for a thousand dollars so he could buy a new desk.”
Another huge challenge in the country is the level of illiteracy.
“Illiteracy in the army is huge; 25 to 30 per cent of the police and the army are illiterate,” Hendin said. “I forgot my ID once and showed the policeman my Costco card with my photograph on the back, and he approved it. He had no idea what he was looking at.”
Hendin said issues surrounding gender justice and rule of law are making little headway in Afghanistan.
“What’s even more unfortunate is the level of corruption,” he said. “Judges can be bribed negatively or positively. Some judges will not go outside of Kabul. Record keeping is almost farcical. The concept of decisions made on evidence presented is not well established at all. The concept of precedence and reported cases is almost non-existent.”
The people Hendin was with did not know he was Jewish and didn’t ask.
“There is underlying anti-Semitism in the country,” he said, noting there is an assumption by the people there that all visiting Westerners are Christian.
Hendin said getting used to the lack of freedom resulting from the inherent dangers in Afghanistan took much getting used to.
“I had some trepidation when I was going, but the significance of the surroundings really hit me once I was there. When I left Kabul in November to teach in Vienna for a week, it took two days to feel back to normal and to walk on the streets. In Kabul, we had a no-walk policy and we couldn’t walk outside our walled compound. Our visit times are staggered so we don’t make a pattern,” he said.
Hendin is unsure of whether he will return to Afghanistan, although he feels there is still much to accomplish.
“The program is transitioning to allow Afghans to stand alone. However, the particular area I’m working on is mentoring, so my involvement may continue. I feel I have a great deal of work yet to do there.”