Legal Education in Iraqi Kurdistan

Iraqi Kurdistan is an autonomous region of Iraq with a population of approximately 6 million that rises daily as people flee violence elsewhere in the region. Iran borders it to the east, Turkey to the north, Syria to the west, and the rest of Iraq to the south. Today, the Islamic State (ISIS) controls swaths of land to the southwest. Iraqi Kurds refer to these insurgents as Daesh, or “one who sows discord,” in rejection of the group’s claim on Islam. In September, we, along with Jennifer Binger, JD ’16, Erik Jensen, professor of the practice of law and faculty director of the Rule of Law Program, and the Rule of Law Program’s executive director, Megan Karsh, JD ’09, traveled to this region as part of the Iraq Legal Education Initiative (ILEI). Established in 2012, ILEI teaches Stanford students to research and write legal textbooks for students attending the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS). The purpose of the trip was to get feedback on our texts from Kurdish students and professors and to assess the current legal education needs in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The trip was a turning point in our engagement with ILEI. While we were committed last year to authoring the best textbooks we could, it was not until our trip that we fully appreciated the challenges facing Iraqi Kurdistan and the demand and need for bettertrained lawyers. Thanks to our partners at AUIS and supporters in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), we met with AUIS students, professors, and administrators, as well as with practitioners and local NGOs in Sulaimani. We then traveled to the city of Erbil, where we had a chance to discuss regional legal developments with the cabinet secretary and the speaker of parliament, a truly extraordinary opportunity.

Everyone, from local practitioners to the speaker of parliament, emphasized Iraqi Kurdistan’s need for more lawyers and, specifically, lawyers with sharp critical thinking skills. Iraq has a civil law tradition. Unlike the U.S. common law system, where judges follow precedents set by prior case decisions, civil law legal codes prescribe answers to anticipated legal problems in advance. Therefore, judges play a more limited role in shaping the law in a civil law system. Legal education in the region has focused on the rote memorization of codes instead of developing skills needed for analytical problem solving.

Legal Education in Iraqi Kurdistan
Left to right: ILEI members and faculty including Elizabeth Miller, JD ’16, Charles Buker, JD ’16,
Enrique Molina, JD ’16, Erik Jensen, Brendan Cosgrove Ballou-Kelley, JD ’16, and Megan Karsh, JD ’09 (Photo Credit: Max Aguilera-Hellweg)

But the need for better-trained lawyers is pressing. Beneath the region’s rolling hills are an estimated 13 billion barrels of oil reserves. As it receives less money from the Iraqi central government in Baghdad, the KRG and private companies increasingly transact with international entities. Without skillful lawyers to draft the multimillion-dollar contracts, the KRG increases its risk of being sued or brought before arbitral bodies.

Additionally, Iraqi Kurdistan’s proximity to the turmoil in central Iraq and Syria means that it has become a haven for nearly 2 million refugees and internally displaced persons. The legal issues mount daily and include access to services, legal documentation, and allocation of resources. These already complex matters are compounded by the region’s ethnic and religious stratifications.

This is where ILEI comes in. We partner with AUIS, established in 2007, to be a regional catalyst for innovation in higher education. With ILEI’s curricular support, AUIS is committed to equipping the next generation of leaders with the legal and policy skills necessary to tackle the challenges facing the region and country.

To date, ILEI has developed a series of 10 publicly available working papers (at, covering domestic law topics ranging from federalism to oil and gas law. The program will publish an additional eight texts on public and private international law and legal methods during this academic year. The texts develop critical thinking with case studies to show how laws have been interpreted in practice and hypotheticals requiring students to apply laws to fact patterns. We tailor the texts to Iraqi Kurdistan, analyzing Iraqi and regional law and questioning where we may be introducing Western biases. For example, most American law students know about the existence of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but few know that Middle Eastern states responded with their own statement of human rights, the Cairo Declaration. Our international human rights chapter examines and compares these human rights instruments. To ensure that our textbooks are appropriate for the Kurdish context, we solicit input from local practitioners and scholars while drafting the textbooks and we use trips such as the one in September to garner feedback. In fact, a highlight of our recent trip was a roundtable discussion with students who have taken classes taught using ILEI’s curriculum. We were inspired by their insightful comments and enthusiasm for learning.

Our vision for the working papers is that they will be compiled into textbooks that AUIS can use to offer a minor in law. AUIS’s long-term goal is to establish a full degree-granting law program akin to that at the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF), which Stanford’s Rule of Law Program supports via the Afghanistan Legal Education Project (ALEP). The focus for now, however, remains on establishing a minor in law as AUIS bravely weathers the budget cuts and uncertainties pervasive in the region.

We are aware that AUIS faces significant challenges. Nevertheless, with such strong demand and talented students waiting at AUIS, we remain optimistic that these obstacles will ultimately be overcome and that the law program will continue to grow. SL