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Faculty and Scholarship

Pursuing justice in context

Emory University School of Law |

Paul Zwier was sitting in a police station in Liberia when a bruised and burned young woman from an outlying village was brought in. When he asked police what had happened, he was told a friend had brought her to the station by motorbike to report she had been assaulted. Zwier was stunned by the policeman’s response. “He said he couldn’t pay for the gas to get out to the woman’s community to investigate, so there was nothing he could do,” he recalls.

The incident was a striking moment for Professor Zwier, who studies how peace with justice gets worked out, especially in countries where atrocities have occurred. Liberia was just coming out of a civil war, and rape and sexual assault were rampant. He was working with dispute resolution experts from The Carter Center, and until the police station experience, his sights were set on building Liberian lawyers’ trial advocacy and evidence-gathering skills. He had done similar work elsewhere in Africa and in Latin America.

“My focus was to train advocates in those countries to be confident and skillful within their legal systems,” he says. He partnered with in-country lawyers and judges. Through simulations and role-playing, the rule of law developed —especially where judges could participate in advocating on victims’ behalf, and thereby better understand the importance of treating these cases seriously.

The assault victim’s plight convinced Zwier that when working to establish a rule of law to formalize definitions of equality to protect women, children, and minorities, one must take into account actual conditions. What resources are available, and what cultural beliefs and traditions surround a particular issue? How is the local magistrate or tribal chief likely to see the matter — are they likely to see the case as a private family matter, or view spouse abuse as a matter of a man’s right in how he treats his property?

Procedural hurdles that may keep the victim from receiving justice must also be considered. For example, formalizing rape as a punishable crime won’t likely result in justice if a rape victim can’t get to a hospital to be examined; if the medical examiner won’t show up in court to testify; and if the victim won’t appear in court when all the witnesses have finally been assembled, because by that point the victim has had to return to his or her life.

“My experience in Liberia led me to a more nuanced approach,” Zwier says. “It inspired me to think about how to look for alternative dispute resolution mechanisms while waiting for the rule of law structures to get implemented and actualized. I focus now more on the in-between time — the steps that need to be taken to get from the starting point to a formalized rule of law.”

In his recent book Principled Negotiation on an International Stage: Talking with Evil (Cambridge University Press 2013), Zwier examines that approach.

For example, in Liberia the community traditionally gathers in a “palava hut” to decide disputes. Rather than imposing an outside system of justice, Zwier advocates helping villages reclaim that tradition, but with paralegal training to encourage the chief to take more responsibility to protect women’s and children’s rights.

“There are flaws with such a system, but it might produce some immediate results and teach some values in the meantime,” he says.

At the crux of all his work is advocacy for the underdog — women, children, and minorities. Rather than just rail against the powers that be, Zwier finds it more effective to create access to justice by developing the people within existing institutions. The primary challenge, especially in post-conflict societies, is respectful partnership, he says. Without understanding and empathy, one can easily do more harm than good.

Zwier is former director of public education for the National Institute for Trial Advocacy. In concert with nita and Lawyers Without Borders, he has worked with International Criminal Tribunals in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, as well as the International Criminal Court. He helped design and conduct advocacy training through the Central and East European Law Institute, the Hong Kong Supreme Court, and the Legal Services Program of Micronesia.

Zwier joined Emory in 2003, drawn partly by the university’s close connection with The Carter Center. “The rule of law development work they do is a wonderful match for my interests and skills,” he says. “I couldn’t think of a better opportunity.” He is a founding partner in the Mexican Institute for Trial Advocacy, and helped the Universidad Panamericana in Mexico City develop an LLM in advocacy.

He also helped develop Emory Law’s new Master in Comparative Law Partnership for graduate law students from Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University. He helped train prosecutors for the Shanghai Stock Exchange and also arbitrators who appear before the Shanghai and Beijing Arbitration Association. Another draw for Zwier was Emory Law’s commitment to trial advocacy; every student is required to take the course. Zwier teaches trial advocacy, torts, and evidence, and his goal is to instill a passion to serve the underserved.

“I hope to inspire students to realize the opportunity they have to really make a difference,” he says. “Whether in a hut before a local chief or before the Supreme Court, being an advocate for a client in the fullest sense of the word, by understanding the client’s plight and then seeking justice — it is still what being a lawyer is all about.”