Promoting the Rule of Law in Uzbekistan

Faculty members play leading roles in bringing judicial reform to this former Soviet Republic.

The ancient trade route between Europe and China known as the Silk Road allowed for the exchange of goods (jade, horses, cotton and wool, glass, weapons, and, yes, silk), but, just as importantly, things like religion, language, traditions, and other products of the mind: ideas. In Tashkent, one of the main cities on the Silk Road and now the capital of Uzbekistan, new ideas are still being exchanged, some of which are being provided by professors at UC Hastings. It is important, groundbreaking work.

These are heady days in Uzbekistan. Part of the Soviet Union until its breakup in 1991, Uzbekistan inherited the Soviet civil law system, along with Soviet-style torpor, corruption, and brutal security apparatus. At the beginning of the 21st century, dissent was still met with violent force—as at the Andijan massacre in 2005, when government troops fired into a crowd of protesters, killing a wildly varying estimate of between 187 and 1,500 people, and after which Westerners were all but locked out of the country.

Much of that has changed, says Yvonne Troya, clinical professor of law and legal director of the Medical-Legal Partnership for Seniors. Shavkat Mirziyoyev, president of the country since 2016, has been instituting “comprehensive reforms at every level of government and society, seemingly by the day,” she wrote in a March 2019 assessment of legal clinics at the two main Uzbek law schools, the University of World Education and Diplomacy (UWED) in Tashkent and Tashkent State University of Law (TSUL). “ Troya’s work is part of the Judicial Reform in Uzbekistan Project

(JRUP), funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and intended to encourage continuing develop- ment of the rule of law and improvements in legal education and the judiciary, in accord with Mirziyoyev’s strong support.

The project was brought to UC Hastings thanks to connections made by Professor Jessica Vapnek when she worked in the private sector, at Tetra Tech DPK, a global rule of law consulting firm. Vapnek has extensive experience in international legal (and other) work, including as a legal officer with the United Nations. She came to the law school in 2017.

Federal government judicial reform projects like JRUP are Tetra Tech DPK’s specialty, Vapnek says. She helped revise and edit the project proposal (as did UC Hastings Director Mary Noel Pepys), especially touting the law school’s involvement with international legal studies (Vapnek is associate director of global programs at the law school); its talented interna- tional law faculty; and its popularity as a prime destination for LLM students, foreign scholars, and legal professionals from other countries—those from Haiti being one recent notable example. Tetra Tech DPK was eventually awarded the Uzbekistan work and subcontracted a small part of the project to UC Hastings, to work alongside a local team already on-site.

The law degree is an undergraduate degree in Uzbekistan, so students are a few years younger than typical students at American law schools. About half the country’s law students today are women. The Uzbek and Russian languages are used pretty much interchangeably, though, Troya noticed, a number of students were English speakers, as well.

In years past, classroom instruction had consisted largely of lectures by professors, rote memorization by students, and little in the way of legal analysis or back-and-forth Socratic method. By presidential decree, the legal curriculum is being updated and teaching methods modern- ized. As Mirziyoyev stated in his historic December 2017, four-hour speech to both houses of the Uzbek Parliament, “Since we are building a democratic state, we need to train well-educated, highly qualified, and altruistic professional lawyers who will meet international standards.”

Although she had done a similar legal clinic assessment in the Democratic Republic of Congo some years ago, “I didn’t know what to expect in Uzbekistan,” Troya said. In fact, she was pleased to find a clinic program already existing at UWED. Thanks, she said, to an “extremely dedicated” faculty and some international support, the clinic has been operating for about 20 years, though without funding since 2009. Another clinic, at TSUL, is brand-new. It’s “a reform-minded school,” Troya observed, with young and enthusiastic leadership. The clinic program is not yet structured as its administration would like it to be. (That is, after all, the reason for the JRUP clinic work and for tapping the expertise of clinical professors from UC Hastings.) In particular, the clinic needs a classroom component to make it more rigorous.

One surprising aspect of working in today’s Uzbekistan is how quickly “the laws are changing, really at breakneck speed,” Troya said. Even though the country has an excellent online searchable database of legislation, what is lacking are current practice guides. One of her recommendations, therefore, is that resources be devoted to “updating or cre- ating” topical practice guides so that the clinics and Uzbek lawyers in general can better keep track of changes in the law.

Another recommendation is that legal ethics become a focus of clinical training. As her report states: “Given the need for ethical reform within the lawyering culture, ethical training of law students in Uzbekistan must continue to be a critical priority of legal education. Law school clinics, specifically, can serve an important function as vehicles for powerful, lasting learning about ethics through practice which budding lawyers can infuse into their careers.”

There is no legal aid system in Uzbekistan, and no culture of pro bono work, so both clinics have tried to fill that role, with some success (including a mobile clinic that takes legal services to the suburbs of Tashkent)—although students are not currently permitted to represent clients in court. The challenge, Troya said, is to consider whether the primary goal of the clinics is to provide legal aid to as many people as possible or to provide the highest-quality training and supervision of students in the development of lawyering skills—to find, in short, the appropriate balance between the two goals.

Another UC Hastings professor who has worked on JRUP so far is Mai Linh Spencer, associate clinical professor. Among her other experience, Spencer served for five years as a prosecutor in the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division. In Uzbekistan, she’s using American clinical education and experiential learning best practices to help develop a clinic-based curriculum for training probationary new hires at the General Prosecutor’s Office (GPO), historically a powerful department of government (and a large one; earlier this year, Mirziyoyev sacked 1,000 people from the office). Spencer’s curriculum builds on additional work by Professor Troya, who supported the GPO remotely this summer by devising a structure for the new GPO legal clinic.

Spencer’s GPO collaborators were career prosecutors, and she thought they were great—“extremely motivated and engaged,” she said, “with a real enthusiasm for teaching and experiential learning.” The high regard was apparently mutual: Spencer’s Uzbek counterpart, Zamira Borsieva, said that “Linh blew participants’ minds by showing them a totally different perspective” (according to, and as rendered into English vernacular by, the interpreter on duty).

Members of the GPO are—and under the new reforms will continue to be—among the most influential members of the Uzbek legal system, so Spencer’s work (on which she is collaborating with Vapnek and Troya) is cutting edge, with, she thinks, vital repercussions for the future.

And the relationship will continue: In September, a half-dozen GPO members and representatives of the two Uzbek law schools visited UC Hastings, after accepting Vapnek’s invitation to include the school on their study tour (which included several different law schools and judicial institutions in the Bay Area). The exchange included observation of students participating in Professor Alina Ball’s Social Enterprise and Economic Empowerment Clinic, a round table with clinical faculty led by Professor Gail Silverstein, and a discussion of best practices in LLM administration led by Associate Dean for Global Programs Keith Hand. Over the next two years, UC Hastings will continue to work with JRUP, supplying faculty expertise as needed.

Both Troya and Spencer made some time for tourism while in Uzbekistan, and both rave about the country. (Vapnek’s work on the JRUP project has, thus far, been via webinars.)

“It’s a fascinating place to visit,” Troya said, “and it is one of the safest places for tourists in the world.” After her work with the legal clinics, she took a side trip to Bukhara (another Silk Road stopover and a UNESCO World Heritage site) and became a (guarded) fan of plov, the quintessen- tial Uzbek meal—an aromatic rice dish mixed with meat, onions, carrots, and other vegetables.

As to whether the anti-corruption reforms that Mirziyoyev has proposed will take hold? “Look,” says Troya, with an eloquent neologism, “I don’t want to over-rosify the situation.” (She means, of course, that massive cultural transformation cannot take place overnight, and that problems remain.) “But given all the other things that are going on globally,” she said, “this is a really bright spot in the world today.”