Growing momentum for Open Justice Reform in Afghanistan

Sayed Ikram Afzali, Executive Director | @SIAfzali

On June 13, 2019, Integrity Watch organized the 3rd National Integrity Conference with the theme of “Open Justice and Citizens Participation in Justice Institutions.” Over 300 government, donors, and civil society delegates attended the conference. A high-level delegation from the government including Vice-President Sarwar Danish, the Minister of Justice, the Chief Executive of the Supreme, Deputy Attorney General, and more than 10 senior Judges from Kabul and other Provinces attended the event. Vice President Danish’s clear and ambitious statement during the conference to support open justice reform and his commitment to adopt the Afghanistan Open Justice Resolution into reform action plans is an indication of the high-level commitment of the government to reforming the justice sector.

The growing momentum for open justice reform is an unprecedented development in the recent history of state-building in Afghanistan. It is unprecedented both because it is a home-grown initiative and also because the demonstration of will to open justice reform seems to be based on a genuine understanding of the issue both by the government and civil society.

The justice sector in general, and the courts in particular, used to interpret their independence as “not accountable” to the public while at the same time being wide open to political interference. This used to be a dominant belief within the judiciary and still is in some parts of it but it has been seriously challenged. Over the years, civil society and media challenged this thinking through publishing research findings that indicated public experiences and perceptions of the justice institutions. In addition, Integrity Watch’s Community-Based Monitoring, through which over 5000 cases have been monitored by local volunteers and findings of which were shared with the judiciary, has contributed to building trust between the citizens and the courts. The courts did not hold open trials in almost all cases and used to give little value to monitoring of the trials by local volunteers in the beginning. However, with persistent program implementation and continuous advocacy, many of the senior judges and government officials now understand that opening up their courts to the public can help them improve their public reputation and positively influence public perceptions about the courts. Our experiences in majority of the cases show that the senior Judges consider public engagement useful and even necessary.  This has led to increased acceptance of civil society and public engagement within the justice sector.

There used to be a lot of lip service by the current and previous government in the past and the donors had been relying on vague promises by the government at international events without any meaningful commitments to reform the justice sector. The promises themselves mostly were agreed upon by “experts” confined in heavily fortified offices who were mostly detached from realities on the ground or who barely spent time in the country to understand the context. However, the current demands made during the conference and upheld by the highest level of leadership of the government is based on many years of interaction between the civil society and the state which has resulted in the changing of mindsets within government that state-building is impossible without reforming the justice sector and reforming the justice sector is not meaningful without public participation.

This unprecedented development is critical since opening up justice sector institutions to regular monitoring and participation by civil society provides public oversight and thereby enhances citizens trust in these institutions and contributes to state legitimacy and thereby peace and stability. While public participation has increased in the last two decades, especially in open trials, and justice institutions have to some extent opened up, much more needs to be done to provide quality and free-from-corruption services. This includes high level political and judicial engagement with civil society and the media. The future reforms in justice institutions are dependent on there being openness in these institutions to co-create plans with civil society organizations and establish independent institutions which are accountable to the public and immune from political interference.