ILAC: all change

As the work of the leading rule of law NGO becomes evermore relevant and in demand around the world, Global Insight meets its new leadership.

Diana Bentley

The International Legal Assistance Consortium (ILAC) underwent a significant changing of the guard earlier this year. The renowned Stockholm-based NGO has, over the years, worked closely with the IBA, providing legal support in post-conflict countries around the world and helping to rebuild their justice systems. During 13 years as ILAC’s Chief Executive, Christian Ahlund has overseen legal missions in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti and Liberia, among many others.

When Ahlund stood down, Agneta Johannson became the organisation’s Executive Director and Elizabeth Howe became its Chair. ‘This is a special time for ILAC with two women leading it, and I know it will have a bright future. Elizabeth and Agneta are both very experienced and will work well together,’ says Ahlund. 

Roles that can involve missions to trouble-spots such as Afghanistan and Iraq are not to be taken on lightly. Both Johannson and Howe are, however, well placed to handle the challenges that ILAC’s work can present. Johannson, ILAC’s Deputy Director since its founding in 2001,has a distinguished record as an international and human rights lawyer working with the Swedish Red Cross, the Swedish Foreign Ministry and the International Commission of Jurists at home and abroad. Having served as a Chief Prosecutor in England, Howe was seconded as General Counsel to ILAC member organisation, the International Association of Prosecutors.

Unique in its structure, the NGO was, according to Ahlund, largely the brainchild of IBA Executive Director, Mark Ellis. When he was head of the CEELI Institute in Prague, Ellis realised the importance of the rehabilitation of the legal systems of post-conflict countries was often not properly grasped, and wasn’t well-managed.‘Mark wanted to develop a group of bar associations to provide technical legal assistance to these countries, and to ensure it was efficiently delivered,’ says Ahlund.

Securing the rule of law is also very necessary for creating the confidence of the business community which helps in developing and rebuilding states

Hans Corell
IBAHRI Co-Chair and former Legal Counsel of the United Nations

Ellis too recalls his ideas at the time: ‘CEELI was providing assistance to countries in Eastern Europe emerging from totalitarian rule. An array of technical legal assistance was being provided by various organisations and you see much time wasted, and the same competitiveness between organisations in the not-for-profit sector as you see in the private sector. The idea behind ILAC was to gather together seasoned legal organisations that would cooperate to provide the assistance necessary by determining what special skills were needed and who could best provide them. They would also only work with the consent of the host country.’

ILAC opened its doors in 2002, the year after it was founded, with funding provided by the Swedish Foreign Ministry. Structured as an umbrella organisation, it selects the most appropriate of its 49 members to deliver assistance on a pro bono basis on approved missions.

Hans Corell, Co-Chair of the IBAHRI and former Legal Counsel of the United Nations, was Vice-Chair of ILAC for two years and a Council member for some time.‘What I’ve seen throughout my whole career is that the rule of law in developing and post-conflict countries is still a very neglected area,’ he says. ‘But, unless you can manage to achieve the rule of law in these places, you’ll have societies in which nothing functions properly. In every society where you have a transition to democracy from a dictatorship, the situation is delicate. Judges, for example, may not fully understand the role of the judiciary in a democratic society. Developing the rule of law in these situations is often very challenging, but vital. So, in my role as Co-Chair of the IBAHRI, and as an ILAC Council member, I always try to impress on representatives of governments and others I meet that they should focus more on legal assistance in their overseas development assistance programmes.’

Corell goes further. ‘Securing the rule of law is also necessary for creating the confidence of the business community, which helps in developing and rebuilding states so it has an effect at every level,’ he says. ‘That’s why I have noted that Goal 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals that are currently being developed and which stipulates that there should be access to justice to all should be expanded – as I noted recently in Global Insight– to include the need for securing peace, democracy and the rule of law.’


It took just two years for ILAC to prove its worth. Nearly 1000 Iraqi judges received training in Dubai and Prague under an
ILAC-orchestrated programme launched in 2004. That year also saw ILAC being asked to help form a national bar association for lawyers in Afghanistan. With the support of the IBA, work towards establishing the Afghan Independent Bar Association (AIBA), the first of its kind in the country, began in 2004.

But it is the training programme in Tunisia that the ILAC team ranks as one of its most successful to date. Tunisian judges are being trained in human rights law and international criminal law by ILAC members, the IBA (through the IBAHRI) and the CEELI Institute, with the Tunisian Ministry of Justice, after an assessment mission determined that the local judiciary needed support in the transition to democracy. ‘Tunisia is a big project. We started in 2012 training all judges in human rights law and it will take three years,’ says IBAHRI Director Phillip Tahmindjis. ‘We’re training over 1,600 people, as the idea was that all judges should be trained rather than only those from the highest courts.’ Training sessions last a week with the IBAHRI and CEELI sharing the training and the logistics. Judges are encouraged to ask questions and to debate issues, and a new Facebook account enables them to communicate with each other.

We’ve been with the Tunisians every step of the way from two weeks after the revolution. If we can help establish a durable democracy and the rule of the law there, it will be a very important model for others to follow

Christian Ahlund
Former Chief Executive, ILAC

Having overseen the programme, Tahmindjis is confident it will make a real difference to the rule of law and the acknowledgement of human rights in the Tunisian legal system. Johannson agrees. ‘We’ve reached out to every judge because if you train 20 or 30 judges it will be good for them, but the benefits may not flow through the whole system,’ she says. Emphasis is being placed on getting feedback from judges who are asked to complete a questionnaire when their training ends. The response has been overwhelmingly positive and anecdotal reports are that what they’ve learned is being put to good use in courtrooms. Judges will be interviewed on a regular basis in future to assess progress.

As Tunisia became the first North African country to ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court in 2011, judges and prosecutors also need to understand how to implement international criminal law and so, since late 2014, some judges and prosecutors have been undergoing training in this area. To further boost the capacity of local institutions to deal with international crimes, the IBAHRI has published an Arabic version of its international criminal law toolkit for the legal profession.

No one is in any doubt about the importance of the success of the Tunisian training projects. ‘Tunisia is crucial,’ says Ahlund. ‘It’s the only country to come out on the path to democracy after the turmoil of the Arab Spring. We’ve been with the Tunisians every step of the way from two weeks after the revolution. If we can help establish a durable democracy and the rule of the law there, it will be a very important model for others to follow. If Tunisia fails, it will take decades for democracy to be established in the Middle East.’ It is not expected that the latest events in Tunisia will affect the programme, although security measures will be reviewed.

As is often the case, one project can reveal other needs and a further project may soon be underway. ‘All the judges have complained about court administration in Tunisia. Apparently, there are real bottlenecks of cases and the filing system doesn’t work,’ says Johansson. Earlier this year, an ILAC assessment mission was carried out by one of the world’s leading experts on court administration, Marcus Zimmer and ILAC staffer Rhodri Williams. Johannson hopes a programme will follow shortly after publication of a report. Tunisia has also provided an opportunity for other ILAC members to contribute, among them the Association of Women Judges, which is working on the creation of a network of female judges in the region to strengthen their leadership on gender and access to justice. The Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law is also working on judicial instruction in human rights in the region.


It is rare that any two ILAC missions are the same, and working methods have to be adapted to each situation. No project proves this more than the present mission to aid Syrian judges in opposition-held territories. ‘When Syria erupted into civil conflict and there was no prospect of any end to it, the Swedish Foreign Ministry and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) asked us if we could do something there,’ Johannson says. ILAC soon found a group of Syrian judges who’d fallen foul of the government when they refused to apply terrorist legislation against dissenters. Many had been harassed and put in jail, while some had to flee the country. The organisation they formed, the Free Independent Judicial Council, is made up of around 80 judges who’ve defected from the Assad government-controlled areas. A core group of around 40 remain in areas controlled by the opposition forces.

The judges wanted to find a project that would help them stay active in their profession… when the situation improves, Syria will need judges

Agneta Johannson
Executive Director, ILAC

‘The judges wanted to find a project that would help them stay active in their profession and earn a salary, and we wanted to support them: when the situation improves, Syria will need judges,’ Johansson says. Four documentation centres – three in the north, one in the south – have been opened by the judges in areas outside the control of Assad’s regime, where people can register births, deaths and marriages and land transactions. ‘This basic registry service became unavailable to Syrians living outside the regime. The judges are employed in the service and their idea is clear: they want to see Syria remain one country in which Syrian law is applied. They don’t want to see the introduction of Sharia law anywhere,’ Johansson says.

The relationship is continuing and the judges have now identified other subjects on which they’d like training, some of which has begun already. ‘We’ve started a programme in Turkey with our member the Association Internationales des Jeune Avocats, which is providing English lessons to some younger judges and lawyers.’


The Afghan bar association project, delivered for ILAC by the IBAHRI, was one of ILAC’s earliest and most successful assignments and it still maintains its ties to lawyers there. When ILAC began its involvement with the country, the need for a bar association was clear. ‘When we first went in, lawyers in Afghanistan were largely civil servants,’ says Tahmindjis. ‘There were only a few in private practice. Although they had a representative organisation, it operated more like a trade union for lawyers. There was no bar association in the sense of a body to govern standard setting, ethics, discipline and continuing legal education.’ Initially, conditions on the ground were somewhat chaotic and on his first visits Tahmindjis carried the funds needed for the project in cash.

After wide consultation with the local profession, the AIBA was formed in 2008, with its headquarters in Kabul. It now has several regional offices. Its by-laws are particularly progressive and include provisions to ensure that members must undertake at least three criminal defence cases on a pro bono basis annually and that the Council must include at least three women members.

The IBAHRI’s role in the project is now largely over, but the relationship continues. ‘It’s standing on its own feet and is an IBA member now,’ says Tahmindjis. ‘We’re doing some continuing legal education for them and we help them get funding. We’ve funded their attendance at an IBA conference and we’re happy to provide support whenever we can. It’s important to let people know you’re there for the long term. Many NGOs aren’t.’ Despite the continuing political and social challenges in Afghanistan, observers say the AIBA has helped lawyers become an established part of the justice system. It is a valuable tool in the fight against corruption and in ensuring access to fair trials in a country where defence lawyers were previously unknown.


Whatever the rewards of its projects, ILAC’s work continues to involve plenty of challenges. While the Swedish Foreign Ministry and Sida have remained loyal supporters, the search for funding is constant. ‘A big challenge for ILAC has been the proliferation of organisations working in the rule of law area,’ says outgoing Chair Bill Meyer. ‘This includes for-profit contractors who don’t play by the same rules as the not-for-profit organisations. In part this is due to the fact that some governments want to have more control over what’s done and for-profit organisations market themselves in a way we can’t. The UN also works in this area through its own personnel and although it moves slowly it has substantial resources.’

Occasionally, funding can’t be found for projects ILAC believes deserve support, and can dry up when it’s clear a project should be continued. ‘Countries can gain a lot of public interest, but the world’s attention can then move on to new places before you get funding for good legal projects for them. We had this experience early on with East Timor,’ Ahlund says. An important contribution was made to the efficiency of the courts in Liberia when ILAC’s programme there introduced new court recording techniques. Funding ceased although more work needs to be done. Ahlund hopes, however, that work may resume. ‘There’s renewed interest now in trying to help Liberia because of the ebola crisis, so perhaps this will stimulate interest in the project again.’

A national legal aid project in Haiti, under which 300 young lawyers working in 17 offices were helping their communities with legal issues and in getting long-term pre-trial detainees freed from jail, ended when funding stopped and couldn’t be replaced. At other times, support may be suspended when the political situation in a country deteriorates. ‘Libya has been a big disappointment. We have friends and colleagues there who are truly committed to democratic reform, but given the security situation presently, no more programmes there can be funded,’ says Bill Meyer. 

Even so, the ILAC team remains convinced that the benefits of its structure and way of working offer countries the best support available. ‘ILAC was created to fulfill a need. Our consortium structure provides the means of providing the best and most effective missions and through committed members who provide support on a pro bono basis,’ says Ahlund. Ellis has also found it an excellent vehicle for furthering the work of the IBA and IBAHRI. ‘The projects in which the IBA, IBAHRI and the CEELI Institute have been involved have all demonstrated the effectiveness of the ILAC operational blueprint. It helps minimise competitiveness between organisations and avoids the duplication of effort and the search for funds and all members can work to their strengths.’ 

Bill Meyer insists ILAC’s collaborative approach and its experience on the ground over the last 13 years are unique. ‘We’ve found that in any given place you must find someone good to work with, someone committed to working in the best interests of country, be it a judge or a bar leader. This is the most effective way to work. If you just try to impose your views on what needs to be done it’s not so effective.’ 

The future

While funding and other tribulations are part and parcel of its work, ILAC is embracing the future with some energy, strengthening its Stockholm head office team and expanding its funding reach. Quinn O’Keefe, a consultant steeped in development work, is now working in the US to search for new sources of funding there.

Regarding new projects, Elizabeth Howe is keen to activate the members. ‘We’ve recently had a meeting with our Asian members in Hong Kong to discuss challenges in the region. We need our members to tell us where the need is. They’re not only a resource in terms of delivering projects, but in being our eyes and ears on the ground helping identify possible projects.’ She’s keen to have a constant review mechanism in place. ‘We’ve been doing a lot of evaluation in Tunisia. Feedback is a vital aspect of our work. We must know how we add to these countries and this is very important for donors.’ 

Howe would like to look further afield for future missions. ‘We could consider places like the Pacific Islands.‘ And an ILAC team will soon visit the Central African Republic to meet with national and UN representatives to discuss the possibility of a full assessment mission to determine what support ILAC could provide in the country. ‘There’s a lot going on,’ says Johannson. ‘I’m looking forward to the future’.

Diana Bentley is a freelance journalist. She can be contacted at dianab@dircon.co.uk