Taktak emphasises that CILC, in order to remain successful and relevant, should continue with its method: perform the role of counterpart and facilitate peer-to-peer mentoring or coaching. “Whereas I would require 100 words to explain something in a project with the Palestine Public Prosecution Office, a Dutch chief public prosecutor would perhaps only need to make eye contact with his Palestinian colleague, or mention a few things about ‘you know, how it works during interrogations’. They can talk about the same experience, having both chosen the same profession, but in a different context.” Taktak notes: “A Dutch peer can explain how they experienced the same problem 10 years ago and how they solved it and what pitfalls emerged. The Palestinian peer does not have to take any advice from his Dutch peer, but will listen to him and recognise experience of dealing with similar difficulties. This creates a special relationship, perhaps even a strong friendship after five, six visits, in which barriers or protocols would disappear and the cooperation would be much more direct and fruitful.”
One of the examples Taktak uses to illustrate the impact and relevance of improving court management is a CILC project for strengthening the judiciary in Yemen. In 2005 the Dutch ambassador to Yemen invited him to explore the Yemeni justice system and provide input for a new project to strengthen the judiciary. “I visited courts and public prosecution offices in different cities, to hear the story ‘from the horse’s mouth’: directly from judges, court clerks, public prosecutors. During those three months, I acquired a sort of second Yemen nature and I became more and more accepted and invited into their circles.” Taktak studied the Yemen Constitution and its implementation and noticed the gaps at work in the courts that he visited. “I sat down with the Yemeni partners, drank tea, chewed qat with them and learned their dialect.”
In the new project that resulted from his findings, six courts were to become an ‘example of change’ in court management for other courts in Yemen. Taktak says he managed to avoid the mistake of using a normative approach and aspiring to change Yemeni laws and regulations. Instead he would focus on issues such as how decisions were made, if deadlines were respected, how files were prepared, if suspects had access to a fair trial, how minority and vulnerable groups were treated during the procedure: in summary, a procedural approach. Taktak: “By doing so, I prevented a discussion about the substantive choices made in these laws and whether they conform to international standards. And I also avoided antagonising religious people. If you object to or try to change the content of their laws, they may interpret it as an attack on their religion which is behind the laws, and which is holy. You do not want to get stuck in this type of discussions.”
By advising court officials to place a glass partition in the court, the project created an intake opportunity at the court entrance: a front office that had not been there before. This enabled vulnerable groups, such as women, to also enter the court without being harassed. Taktak: “Before the establishment of the glass partition in the court building, it was the right of the strongest that ruled. Everyone wanted to enter the court and speak to the president and file their complaints. It was like an overcrowded market with a crowd fighting for a scarce product, in casu, talking to the court president. We enabled the president to keep people behind the partition and schedule certain hours for consultations with justice seekers. The women would never join those crowds, which excluded them from access to justice. With the establishment of the new glass partition, they could have their own line.”
What was even more important, the project ensured that people could no longer enter the court building and move around freely. “The front office would simply handle the issue and would stop the fire from spreading. The French and Dutch judges involved in this project hoped that limiting the opportunities of contact between justice seeker and court officials would also curb opportunities for corruption. The court president at the time told us: ‘You wouldn’t believe it, but 80 percent of irregular behaviour has gone. Papers are no longer disappearing from files’.”
Another example Taktak gives to illustrate the impact and relevance of improving court management and peer-to-peer mentoring is a CILC project in Palestine: supporting the Palestinian Public Prosecution on the West Bank (2010-2014).
Taktak recalls: “In the Palestinian Territories I noticed that public prosecutors would not really participate in the hearings. They would request the judge to hand over the file to them for inspection and then leave it up to the judge to decide, without adding anything. We wanted to put an end to this practice. We wanted to see requisitories prepared by public prosecutors. We wanted to see a real case, a proper file and an archive. I visited the Advocate-General and shared my observations with him. He replied that the public prosecution had to be rebuilt from scratch after the conflict between Fatah and Hamas, as the Palestinian Public Prosecution used to be in Gaza. We selected six pilot prosecution offices and started step by step, with the assistance of highly qualified local and international experts. First, we had to build an archive. Thousands of pages for each of the pilot offices were copied from the court archives. Then we upgraded the file management and the workflows making sure that a public prosecutor would have access to a file a week before the court session so that he could study it.”
In addition, prosecutors were trained based on a peer-to-peer approach. CILC brought in a Dutch former public prosecutor and a Jordanian judge. They stayed by the side of their Palestinian peers through their workday. Taktak: “At the end of the day, they would discuss all aspects of the work that had been carried out and the international experts would make suggestions for changes. Another expert, an Austrian retired public prosecutor, joined the Palestinian public prosecutor at court hearings. Afterwards they discussed all the proceedings and the Austrian expert would give her feedback on the requisitory of the Palestinian colleague.”
Taktak concludes proudly: “When we finished the project, public prosecutors were delivering requisitories for half an hour up to 45 minutes. Furthermore, administrative staff only had to press one button for a case file to move to the judiciary. When I described this IT achievement to some Dutch public prosecutors, they replied in amazement that we do not even have such a system in the Netherlands.” Taktak says he likes achieving things which seem impossible to others, as was the case in this project.
In his projects, Taktak pays special attention to the administrative staff. One of the projects that illustrates this is a CILC project in Morocco. Its aim was to help build a proper understanding and application of the new Moroccan Family code. Led by Moroccan King Mohammed VI, in 2004 the Moroccan parliament adopted a new Family Code, the Mudawwana. CILC received a request to train the Moroccan judiciary on the implications and application of this new family code, which consisted of new notions deriving from international law and conventions Morocco was bound by. Many judges had only been trained to work with the old Mudawwana of 1958 and it was feared that they would continue applying it, depriving women and children of the benefits incorporated in the new family code.
Taktak: “If a woman wished to register a complaint, the first people she would talk to were administrative personnel. If they do not act in the spirit of the new Mudawwana and international laws and obligations, that woman can be denied access to justice”. Taktak adds proudly:
“In Morocco, they still talk about our training and their study visit to the Netherlands. It was an eye-opener. The willingness from both sides to share and exchange information meant things could really be changed.”
For Taktak, to really improve a justice system in a country it is crucial to adopt a comprehensive approach. “The system is as strong as its weakest link is. For example, if you only improve the judiciary procedures and not the skills of the public prosecutor or of the administrative staff, the entire system will be at the level of the lowest skilled.” A project which illustrates this philosophy is a CILC baseline study in Ethiopia in 2003, aimed at improving the entire Ethiopian justice system.
Taktak: “After five days of fact finding with experts from different continents invited by Ethiopia to compete for the study, I felt an approach that would address the entire justice system was required. The other candidates suggested a piece meal approach.” CILC was awarded the project and together with experts from Sweden, the UK, France and South-Africa established a Magna Carta for justice reform in Ethiopia for 2004-2015. They researched the entire justice chain: the mainstream justice system but also the traditional justice system, the universities and the penitentiary system. Taktak notes: “This piece of work is still used there as a roadmap.” Some years ago, Taktak received an email from the new Dutch ambassador to Ethiopia, whom Taktak knew from Yemen, saying he had his first meeting with the Ethiopian Minister of Justice to introduce himself. During this meeting the Minister picked up a book and told the Dutch ambassador: “Ever since we’ve got this, we have been working based on all the ideas here. We stick as much as possible to it and also ask our donors to follow it.” That book was the CILC study.
Getting your hands dirty
Taktak emphasises that CILC experts do not work from cosy offices in Europe. “You have to be a practitioner who works on the ground, facing and understanding daily realities and the context there. CILC experts go to those countries and get their hands dirty working with their colleagues.”
One of Taktak’s most appealing memories to illustrate this is that of a French judge in Sana’a, sitting down on the warm sand of the Court of Appeal courtyard with its fully robed president, drawing a map of the planned new court on the ground. They were surrounded by broken chairs and tables from the rented building in which no renovations had been made yet. The French judge had noticed that even though it was the third time the president had showed the visiting experts around, none of his enthusiastic plans for reconstruction of the court building had been carried out yet. “Isn’t it about time that we help him out here?” he wondered. He took off his jacket and asked the Court of Appeal president to sit down with him. Taktak served as translator. The French judge said: “This is your building. And here you are planning to install the archive” and writes down ‘archive’ in the sand. “And here is the corridor. But what about the security of the files? And here is your Registry. But how can they reach the door to attend to visitors?” The president looked at his head of Registry and ordered him to arrange tea and coffee. After a whole map had been drawn, the president told one of his colleagues, “Please, put barriers around this drawing. Nobody is allowed to touch it. I want to discuss it with the architect”. The French judge stood up and said: “Yes, I was wearing an expensive suit but I had to help my colleague. He was sharing his plans with visiting experts without acting on them, so I had to walk him through his own scenario to make it achievable.”
Taktak adds: “Later my French colleague asked what had happened to the drawing. It has all been carried out.”
It takes two to tango
Taktak has not only met change-makers along the way during his long stint at CILC, not only people willing to allow an outsider to help define the direction. For example, in Yemen, during a court staff training session, Taktak tried to raise awareness about the problems deriving from the way a file was managed in their court. He pointed out where the procedures were inefficient, when opportunities could arise for disappearing papers or corruption, how to improve observance of human rights and how to build in more protection for vulnerable groups. Not all participants were eager to embrace changes. Some argued that the law prevented them: they needed permission from the Minister of Justice, they needed to consult the Council for the Judiciary, etc. Taktak: “The proposed changes might be too modern, bringing them outside their comfort zone, breaking with years of tradition. By contrast, reformers will understand the professional benefit of change. As a CILC-er and as an outside expert, one should identify this dedication, respect it and use it in a positive manner. Use one’s radar, so to speak, one’s personal analysis, experience, knowledge of human behaviour for this.” Other project failures emerge when a counterpart turns out to be corrupt or untrustworthy, under which circumstances a project will be terminated.
Favourite type of experts
In conclusion, Taktak shares the type of experts he enjoys working with the most. In his view, the majority of experts tend to think they know it all already – they are experts after all. But it is those that are curious and eager to learn whom he enjoys working with most. Those who want to understand how the other side operates and how they struggle and with which issues. Those who try to figure out better ways to assist their colleagues. Those who tell Taktak on the return flight that the project was very useful to them. Those experts who possess self-reflection and start to value the Dutch system more after their experience abroad. Taktak: “I like them even more when they share with me how they appreciate the way their Turkish or Georgian or Moroccan peer handles some situations in their own country. When they learn new ways of addressing situations at home from unexpected places.”
Interview by Marjolein C. Groot, 13 May 2015