Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Transforming Bolivian Justice


A judicial showdown has unfolded between the executive and judicial branches of the Bolivian government in the past several weeks. The latest development resulted in a 24-hour strike by judges, magistrates and lawyers on June 5 to protest what opponents call a threat to the separation of powers.

This is the first strike that the judiciary has held in Bolivia's history and demonstrates the ongoing rift which began on May 9 after the country’s Constitutional Tribunal moved to suspend four Supreme Court members that were appointed by President Evo Morales in December.

In response Morales demanded the resignation of four of the five Constitutional Tribunal justices and initiated a lawsuit to prevent his judicial appointees from being canned. The head of the opposition party Podemos, Jorge Quiroga, described Morales's move as a "judicial coup" and the Washington Times characterized Morales’ actions as “an attack on Bolivia’s justice system”.

Yet recently released reports indicate that the Bolivian judicial system is in need of significant reform and greater transparency - two goals that characterize the ambitious goals of the Morales administration.

Findings of Judicial Corruption

Calling the justice system a national embarrassment, President Morales accused the judiciary of robbing Bolivia’s citizens of $300 million and undermining the country’s system of justice by releasing thieves and narcotraffickers. In protest, Supreme Court Justice Juan Jose Gonzales Ossio handed in his resignation on May 21.

Two days later, Morales delivered a 50-page report to the media entitled "Towards a New Justice System in Bolivia," in response to Supreme Court demands that he provide evidence for his claims.

It contained studies by groups such as the Anticorruption Network of Bolivia (Red Anticorrupción de Bolivia) and the Andean Commission of Jurists (Comisión Andina de Juristas) as well as results of the government's own investigations which supported Morales’ statements that the judiciary is the most corrupt entity in Bolivia.

And the President’s comments are also well supported by findings from Transparency International and the International Bar Association.

A recently released report by Transparency International (TI) indicates that the majority of Bolivians have little faith in their judiciary system. According to TI - a Germany-based global coalition against corruption – its
“Global Corruption Report 2007: Corruption in Judicial Systems” found that 80 percent of those contacted in Bolivia perceive their legal systems as corrupt. And in one of the highest rates of judicial bribery – one in three Bolivians admitted to paying bribes to the court system.

While speaking at a Brookings Institute event highlighting the results of TI’s report, Open Society President, Aryeh Neier, stated that widespread mistrust of judicial institutions is one of the factors that push citizens to resolve their grievances through the use of force, leading to social disorder and violence. An occurrence that is not unfamiliar in Bolivia.

And following a fact finding mission to Bolivia last year, the
International Bar Association's Human Rights Institute discovered numerous flaws within the country’s justice system including: “access to justice is denied to millions due to widespread corruption, a shortage of courts throughout the country, the absence of interpreters for cases in which one of the parties speaks an indigenous language and persistent delays in hearing cases.”

The rampant corruption in Bolivia’s judiciary and its historical bias towards the wealthy and those of Spanish descent are among several reasons that the country is acting to reform its justice system by including indigenous and community justice systems.

Its justice agenda was put on the world stage most recently at the
United Nation’s Sixth Session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in May.

While the governmental showdown was heating up in Bolivia, an official delegation led by Valentin Ticona, Vice Minister of Community Justice, demonstrated Bolivia’s ongoing commitment to recognize the value of community justice.

Gaining Community Justice

During his statement before the Forum, Vice Minister Ticona recognized the governmental policies taking place that seek to incorporate indigenous and community structures into the nation’s judicial system and he emphasized that community justice systems should be considered within international development goals.

For the first time in the Forum’s history, the Bolivian delegation included a governmental official as well as members representing five of Bolivia’s largest social organizations and provided an opportunity for Bolivia to share its philosophy of consensus and collective leadership.

In a brief interview with Sr. Ticona at the Bolivia’s Mission to the UN, he spoke of Bolivia reforming its justice system from the community level on up. He indicated the great need for a stronger system of justice – one that was not only for the rich but was instead grounded in community values. According to Vice Minister Ticona, in Bolivia, “the actual justice is corrupt and very slow – rulings are sold or negotiated.”

By following an indigenous or community model, justice can be accessible, free and preventative instead of a tool for the wealthy and well-connected. He acknowledged the discrimination that currently exists in Bolivia’s justice system and that justice should be equal for all, whether “mestizo, indigenous, non-indigenous, or gringo.”

Looking Back to Move Forward

In his criticism of the ongoing situation, Morales denounced an alliance between the country’s neoliberal parties, judicial system and the U.S. embassy that seek to undermine the country’s current reforms. He criticized the Constitutional Tribunal judges, for failing to join in the process of change that is sweeping the country, stating they were acting for political, rather than legal reasons.

The recent developments within Bolivia’s judicial, political, social and economic spheres may be difficult for opposition members to absorb, but these demands have been long sought for by Bolivian citizens.

Forced by ongoing protests, the lines of the executive and judicial branch have been blurred before. In June 2005, Supreme Court Justice Eduardo Rodriguez was appointed by Congress as the country’s new president after three weeks of blockades by demonstrators forced the resignation of then president Carlos Mesa.

The position was refused by leaders in both the upper and lower houses of Congress, as protesters vehemently denounced those they considered to be a part of Mesa’s corrupt administration. Among the other demands made at the time were the nationalization of the country’s oil and gas industry and the creation of special assembly to grant more public political participation.

All of these initiatives have only begun to receive attention under the leadership of President Morales and his Movimiento a Socialismo (MAS) party. And although the struggle for change is difficult, the Bolivian government continues to press what Vice Minister Ticona calls a “forward-thinking” agenda that will reform the country - bringing about greater equality for all of its citizens and serve as a model for nations around the world.

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