Seeing The Bigger Picture

While researching Burmese law for the Myanmar manual, I hit a roadblock pretty early on. The idea for the manuals is to provide defense lawyers with a tangible resource detailing basic due process rights cited to specific Burmese code sections. The problem, however, is that Myanmar laws are not always phrased the same way the U.N. or the U.S. would phrase these laws. In fact, they almost never are. For example, instead of saying, "The accused has the right to an attorney, and if he cannot afford one, one will be provided for him by the state," the Myanmar Constitution merely says that people have "the right of defense." Roadblocks like this have forced me to be creative and to think outside the box not only to find but also to frame the rights of the accused in Myanmar. 

Normally, in the U.S., if a law does not provide for an explicit right, then we look to case law to expound upon the statute. Theoretically, this is also true in Myanmar, except that judges and magistrates seldom follow case precedent. Therein lies the problem. How do you protect rights when laws only vaguely cover them, defense lawyers are not trained to advocate for them, and judges refuse to uphold precedent protecting them? One approach would be to change the institutions: the courts, the government, the laws. This approach may work, and in many cases it is necessary, but it is also more adversarial. Another approach is to work within the institutional framework and change attitudes from the ground level. 

IBJ takes the latter approach, training lawyers to use the resources they have to legitimize due process rights in the eyes of the courts. 

This of course is no easy task, but as I am learning through my work on a second project at IBJ, the long-term effect of reinforcing the rule of law through the criminal justice system is substantial. Reinforcing the rule of law brings country stability and leads to economic growth in a number of ways. Even just changing attitudes toward one aspect of the criminal justice system—the use of investigative torture or enforced disappearances, for example—can exponentially increase human security, creating a ripple throughout the country and its culture. 

It is easy when working on a project to lose sight of the bigger picture. For a second, when I hit a roadblock with my research for the Myanmar manual, I got frustrated because I couldn't find what I was looking for; I was only focusing on the immediate task in front of me. But when I started work on my second project researching the economic impact of rule of law in developing countries, I realized the work I was doing on both projects has the potential to shift cultural norms—to change the world, if only in a small way. 

And for that, I am incredibly grateful.