Support Education, Not Just Drones: The Power of Legal Education in Kurdistan

In June, columnist Tom Friedman gave the at the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani (AUIS) and wrote about it in a column titled Mr. Friedman concluded his column with the following observation about AUIS: “Yes, this is an elite school, and Kurdistan is an island of decency in a still-roiling sea. But the power of example is a funny thing. You never know how it can spread. More American universities, please—not just drones.”

Three years ago in Erbil, I was sitting in the kitchen of Dr. Barham Salih, the former Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government and the founder of American University of Iraq in Sulaimani (AUIS). Together with Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Eli Sugarman (SLS JD ’09), Dr. Salih and I toasted a partnership between Stanford Law School (SLS) and the American University of Iraq in Sulimaniya to develop a law program at AUIS, known as the Iraq Legal Education Initiative (ILEI). My students, our fellow Megan Karsh (SLS JD ’09), and I have worked intensely with faculty and staff at AUIS over the past several years to shape a curriculum relevant in Kurdish Iraq and to write textbooks that support the law classes. Last spring, the first law course at AUIS was finally offered. AUIS students filled the course (and a waitlist) and enthusiastically participated in it.

In some respects it might be surprising to know that Iraq had a better-developed legal system than many other developing countries. Still, mainstream legal education in Iraq fits a pattern that we see across developing countries. Stiff lectures, rote memorization, and woefully outdated textbooks are the hallmarks of that pattern. Many of the standard legal texts in Iraq, for example, were published in the 1970s. We cannot engineer the future of Iraq; that is obvious. But we can help to educate a cadre of future leaders to think critically about the legal and policy choices that Kurdish Iraq makes. And we can infuse its political and legal institutions with capable actors. My students are writing superb textbooks for AUIS, AUIS is fielding capable teachers, and students at both AUIS and SLS are voting with their feet and demonstrating their commitment to the building out of a legal education program at AUIS. Through the Iraq Legal Education Initiative partnership with Stanford Law School, AUIS is filling an urgent need for now and the future. This effort must continue and grow.

The partnership is strong, and includes the unwavering support of Dawn Dekle, President of AUIS and SLS JD ’99. AUIS has provided substantial counterpart contributions to realize our shared dream. We have two additional courses that will be rolled out this coming academic year —but funding is now in question.

President Dawn Dekle emailed me over the weekend with an update on the current state of affairs in Kurdistan generally and at AUIS specifically. The situation in Kurdistan is improving with US air support. However, because the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has had to direct all of its liquid funds to the Pashmerga to fight the Islamic State (IS) invasion and to the escalating refugee crisis, the KRG cannot make its annual contribution to AUIS. AUIS depends upon the KRG contribution to operate. AUIS has to dramatically slash its budget. The first step is to cut courses not absolutely required for students to graduate. The two ILEI classes AUIS and we have worked so hard to create for the coming year are on the chopping block unless we are able to raise $10,000 ($5,000 per class). That sum is the minimum required to cover the professors’ salaries and to print the textbooks.

I am hopeful that we will find funding to continue to build out a law curriculum at AUIS. We have launched several other successful legal education programs throughout the world, including in Afghanistan where a partnership with American University in Afghanistan and Stanford Law School has been growing and flourishing for years. We now have a full law degree granting program and a 132-credit curriculum at AUAF and my students have authored seven textbooks (and counting) that are or will be translated into Dari and Pashto. We must do the same in Iraq. We are betting on the quality of the future of this fledgling democracy.

Erik Jensen is a Professor of the Practice of Law at Stanford Law School and the Director of its Rule of Law Program, which has launched legal education programs in Afghanistan, Iraq, Timor-Leste, Rwanda, and Bhutan. He is also an Affiliated Faculty Member at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University (FSI).

If you wish to support the legal education program in Iraq, payment can be made by check or money wire. Unfortunately, the AUIS Foundation is not equipped to process credit card or debit card transactions yet. Checks can be made out to “The American University of Iraq Foundation” —a 501(c)(3)—with “for ILEI courses” in the memo line and sent to:

The American University of Iraq Foundation
c/o JP Schnapper-Casteras (SLS ’09)
1117 10th Street NW, W7
Washington, DC 20001

Postnote from Erik: I’m writing a check and I hope that you will, too.