Project Bosnia IPRO II

Home Members Schedule File Archive Assignments Links

Chicago Tribune Perspective Section

On The Record

by David Mendell, Tribune Staff Writer

Sunday, August 30, 1998

Henry Perritt Jr. Chicago Kent Dean

In 1995, after the Dayton Accords halted ethnic fighting in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the region was left without many of the legal foundations essential to run a civilized society. With the country's legal institutions and libraries gone, students at the Chicago-Kent College of Law stepped in to help.

The students began by setting up a Web page to give voice to journalists, who had been muted by the government-controlled media. But soon the students were putting up international legal documents to help the newly established Ombudsman tribunal to bring war criminals to trial and to oversee the prosecution of human rights abuses. They also helped advise the new federal Constitutional Court of nine judges, six from Bosnia-Herzegovina and three from other countries.

Henry Perritt Jr., Chicago-Kent's dean, served in the Clinton and Bush administrations and oversaw the students' mission, dubbed Project Bosnia.

Q: What is Project Bosnia and how did it start?

A: A group of law professors from the University of Sarajevo heard about the work we had done to put legal institutions up on the Web. We showed them the Web sites that had 850 federal agencies and all federal court information, and they asked, 'Oh, could we do this in Bosnia?' and I said, 'Sure you can.' Pretty soon, we were working with them to develop a strategic plan for an Internet-based legal information infrastructure. We had 50 law students involved, and they went out and spread the word.

The United States Information Agency pointed out that one of the problems, particularly in the Republic of Srpska, was the choke hold on the press. The USIA said the country is crawling with people who have stopped designating themselves as journalists. The problem is they don't know how to talk to each other. They had no outlet to use the Internet to do this.

Q: How did you help rebuild the legal infrastructure and law libraries? I know you're using computers primarily, but did you also cart over law books?

A: No. It's all on the Internet. The first step was to get them equipped, and the second step was to get them connected, and the third step was to provide them with content.

The essence of that was to get the work product, newly drafted laws and judicial opinions, published on the Web. We targeted the Bosnian Ombudsman and the Constitutional Court to receive that information because they're designated as the human-rights detector and the Ombudsman is probably the single most effective legal institution in Bosnia. They have processed 120,000 complaints. And they've been very aggressive and very entrepreneurial about that, in contrast to many international bureaucrats who are too ready to figure out why something can't be done.

Q: How did it go with the Constitutional Court? Were officials there as cooperative and aggressive as the Ombudsman?

A: We had more difficulty there because the first year of its existence it didn't have any teeth. The Constitutional Court is responsible for handling internal ethnic conflicts. For example, if the Serbs and the Croats and the Bosnians couldn't reach a decision on a multi-membered presidency, they could go to the court. So the symbolism of getting the court connected was important.

Q: What obstacles did you run into?

A: The remnants of the old Yugoslavian monopolies - the state-owned phone system - was a big problem in terms of Internet connectivity. We could get access to materials from outside the country because all you need is a PC and modem, but if you want a server, you need a connection right there.

I didn't tell the students, but I didn't think they'd get an Internet connection out, but a few days before they left, about 2 a.m., I got an e-mail from the freshman in the group, who said, 'We did it! We did it! We got connected and here's the URL [address]. You can look, at it.'

I think in that instance the students learned how to mediate some negotiations and play one side against the other without getting into too much trouble.

Q: I understand you've undertaken a similar endeavor in Kosovo. How is it different from the Bosnian project?

A: In Operation Kosovo, we're not trying to rebuild legal institutions. We're just trying to deliver news and legal information to people. So part of it is to mobilize resources in Chicago and elsewhere - people who know this information and how to get it there. The concept is to do this through the relief organizations since the Red Cross and others are very astute technologically and they speak English and so they have been intermediaries for us. The Albanian ambassador asked for our advice on drafting some refugee laws for Albania.

Q: On a human scale, what is your prognosis for the region? Do you think there will forever be conflict? Do you think there will ever be a peaceful climate?

A: I think what is going on is a microcosm of what goes on in the world in general. You have people with ancient ethnic hatreds and that's everywhere. We have some of that in our own country. The question is whether you have political structures that contain those hatreds so people don't kill each other over them.

We're trying to figure out what types of political structures will work there. And I think that we have done very well in Bosnia. For all of the criticism of the Dayton Accords, I think it was the right solution to stop the fighting, and it seems to me that it's bearing fruit.

Q: Is there anything else in Albania and Kosovo that you would like to do?

A: We'd like to help with some election issues and the Internet to allow refugees to vote over the Internet. I think that's an interesting possibility.

Q: But couldn't elections over the Internet be a minefield? Is the technology advanced enough to protect its security? How do you assure that votes are legitimate, that the Internet ballot box isn't stuffed?

A: Well, that's the trick. But think about it: They used the Internet in Bosnian elections. The refugees were allowed to register through the Internet. You have various difficulties all over the ground and you have refugees spread out all over the world and yet you have political decisions where the refugees are entitled to vote. How are you going to do that? The Internet. And we got far enough along with a Costa Rican project that I think we know how to approach the security issues. You don't from home. You vote from polling places that can be monitored.

Q: Did you find other countries trying to help Bosnia with computer technology?

A: No. I think the institutional European attitude is, 'Well, we can't do anything about something that isn't our responsibility' and the American spirit is 'I have failed unless I can figure out a way around this obstacle.' I really tried to reinforce that attitude with the students. I have said, 'Don't come back to me and say I have run into an obstacle. Figure out how to do it another way.'