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August 1, 2013
Capt. Thomas L. Dickens III with Afghan judge

CAPT. THOMAS L. DICKENS III, above, sits with an Afghan judge at a “justice shura.” At these shuras (CLEs), justice officials discuss new laws and the proper ways to implement them. “Our goal is to establish a fairer system with less room for bias in the justice process,” Dickens said.

Florida lawyer works to bring the rule of law to Afghanistan

By Capt.Thomas L. Dickens III
United States Army Reserves

For a rule of law attorney assisting young democracies around the world, promoting transparency in government is widely considered the hallmark of our practice. Last month, I returned from a six-month deployment as a rule of law attorney with the U.S. Army JAG Corp in Afghanistan. During that time, my fellow Army reserve attorneys and I sought to root out corruption and assist our Afghan partners in implementing a transparent government that would earn the trust of the citizens of that country. This was my second deployment as a judge advocate in two years, my first being to Iraq, and this experience as a rule of law practitioner, like my previous assignment, was quite rewarding. At the end of the day, I am confident that we truly made a difference with assisting another fledgling government improve stability and acceptance by its citizens.

While in Afghanistan, I had the opportunity to work with some very brave judges, prosecutors, and police officers who sought to bring democratic justice to a country that otherwise had not known that sort of fairness. Specifically, the team of reservists with whom I deployed helped to implement better processing procedures in order to ensure the protection of citizens’ rights. This ultimately meant those citizens would have confidence that the government was not out to harm them. We sought to help our Afghan counterparts implement the use of science in an effort to safeguard individual rights.

Afghans using the biometric identifier systems, which the Army has introduced to Afghan authorities to identify criminal suspects in a manner much more reliable than human identification. Biometric verification equipment, similar to fingerprint analysis, was an important science-based system that we promoted to our Afghan counterparts. In America, we have learned that scientific identification is often better than eyewitness accounts. This equipment would help Afghan authorities to identify criminal suspects in a manner much more reliable than human identification. Our goal is to establish a fairer system with less room for bias in the justice process.

My time in Iraq was actually quite similar to that in Afghanistan in that I worked with local, provincial, and state justice actors to ensure that citizens’ process rights remained at the forefront of all justice activity. In both countries, we helped underrepresented populations gain a voice in their nation’s future, while assisting governments in earning the confidence of the citizenry. An important point that I observed in both countries is that stability and citizens’ confidence are key to a functional government. That means that citizens’ rights are being protected. And in both deployments, I learned that there is a very defined way in which to establish that stability and instill confidence.

The greatest problem plaguing both democracies is corruption, or at the very least the appearance of such. Corruption is the biggest impediment to establishing a sustainable rule of law. Of course, our counterparts, the vast majority in both countries, are true to the practice of justice and are honorable men and women. However, as is a concern with any new government, the mere perception of corruption will result in the erosion of confidence in that government.

Perhaps the best model that we as rule of law practitioners have to root out corruption is that used in Florida — our Sunshine Laws. Transparency in government, as I used to teach my Afghan partners, is the hallmark of a functional agency. If government actors are perceived as impressionable by outside special interests, the citizenry will not trust those officials. The government will lose its legitimacy.

Unfortunately during my time in Afghanistan, I did not see the National Assembly implement its own Sunshine Laws, but I can truly say they are on the way to doing just that. We were able to convey to those local, provincial, and state actors the importance of transparency in government, and they agreed. Each of the justice officials with whom I interacted understood how debilitating corruption can be and recognized the importance of acting in a transparent manner.

I am very lucky to have been deployed on these tours to Afghanistan and Iraq. Our Sunshine Laws provided me the guiding light with which to show my Afghan and Iraqi counterparts the way to stability in government and instilling confidence in the citizenry through transparency. We attorneys in Florida are lucky to have our Sunshine Laws to promote good government, and fortunately for the international community, it appears that Afghanistan and Iraq are beginning to understand as well.

Capt. Thomas Dickens III is a judge advocate in the U.S. Army Reserves and deployed in January to Afghanistan with the Third Infantry Division for six months. He returned July 1 and now practices with Dickens & Dunn in Tallahassee.

[Revised: 04-15-2017]