By The Platform Team
A few weeks ago, 140 law students visited The Hague, Cologne, Strasbourg and Zurich. It was not a normal trip…and it wasn’t the first time it happened.
Strathmore Law School (SLS) organizes these academic trips every year for all the third year LLB students. The trip is part of Public International Law and the students attend talks given by international judges, prosecutors, parliamentarians, local authorities, government agencies and renowned scholars. They also sit an exam at the University of Cologne.
The academic trip includes visits and talks at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the International Criminal Court (ICC), the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the European Court for Human Rights (ECHR), the Council of Europe, the European Parliament, Courtroom 600 in Nuremberg, the universities of Leiden, Cologne, Rotterdam, Ghent, etc. They are also received by the Kenyan Embassies along the traveling route as well as local government institutions.
The Platform team met the dean of SLS, Dr Luis Franceschi, the head of the team behind this exceptional idea.
PT Strathmore may be the only university in Africa having such a programme for all its students. What pushed you to undertake such adventure?
Legal education is in crisis worldwide. There is a crisis of identity that is affecting the output of every law school. We have started questioning the core of what has traditionally been legal education. This crisis has affected developed and developing nations alike, and civil and common law systems. For several years, at Strathmore we have been thinking of ways to turn the modern lawyer into an agent of social change, a good lawyer who is also a reliable and dependable person… a man or woman who can be trusted, and whose main goal is justice and fairness; a modern professional who understands the beauty of doing well by doing good. This is what makes or breaks the lawyer.
Strathmore’s ethos started a revolution in Africa. Strathmore was the first multiracial and multi-religious educational institution in Eastern Africa. It broke all the social molds of the time, before independence, when there was racial segregation in Kenya.
From its foundation, Strathmore’s ethos was revolutionary. Its mission aimed at providing an “all round quality education in an atmosphere of freedom and responsibility excellence in teaching, research and scholarship, ethical and social development and service to the society.”
PT What are the most striking challenges of modern legal education in Kenya?
Prof Patricia Kameri-Mbote has always insisted on the fact that lawyers are the oil of society; they make relationships possible and functional. Well, this oil needs to be of good quality.
During my student days at Parklands Campus, in the University of Nairobi, I observed that legal education, in general, had sunk into three difficult educational pitfalls.
First, lack of commitment of lecturers who thought they could combine fulltime practice and fulltime teaching. This destroyed the high standards of our traditional quality legal education. Nobody who practices fulltime can become a Yash Pal Ghai, an Okoth-Ogendo, an Ali Mazrui.
Second, lack of standards. It is not only that our standards may be low, but that most people do not know what high standards really mean. Most of my students have never travelled. They have never been exposed to any better standards than what Nairobi offers. They have never seen a reliable and functional public transport system or clean and neat public spaces. We needed to place the bar higher and give them a positive culture shock.
I will never forget the day Maliha, a brilliant girl from Mombasa, told me “dean come and see this!” We were in Luxembourg and she took me to a zebra crossing. She then put her foot down on the zebra crossing and cars automatically stopped. The youngsters also noted that there were no traffic policemen on the road and no Alcoblow. For fear or virtue, Europeans seemed to respect the rule of law.
This was bound to arouse the attention of any clever law student. Legal education trains them to constantly think of ways of circumventing the law without facing the consequences, which translates into a subtle attitude of misuse of freedom.
Third, the dramatic absence of soft skills. Many youngsters do not have anything they can confidently call home. There are too many broken or dysfunctional families, absent parents… This is a time bomb in our society and universities are turning a blind eye on this. We complain a lot about the millennials, we tear our garments when a scandal erupts, but this is not just their problem. A child is the mirror of his parents, his friends, his environment. The tree is known by its fruits.
We realised that a well-organised programme could instill in them those soft skills we usually take for granted. The students had to dress formally for the sessions, be punctual, behave responsibly. True they had a lot of fun, but they had to plan well. They knew we trusted them and that the timetable was packed. It all started very early in the morning. They did not let us down. On the contrary, they would read and prepare engaging questions and arguments. I can proudly say, they impressed everyone at every visit.
PT Is Strathmore managing to instill those soft skills in the students?
Time will tell. So far, so good, but it would be pretentious to sing victory. There are many factors in this battle for soft skills, and many of them fall outside the scope of the university. What I am happy to say is that I see a clear change of attitude before and after the academic trip. It is as if the experience turns the students on…like a switch. The academic, cultural and practical knowledge they acquire during the trip works like magic, it is amazing. They become confident, they fear nothing…and at the same time they grow in humility, having seen that Africa urgently needs to improve in many areas, that we need to be hardworking in the pursuit of excellence, that respecting the rule of law pays off…
PT How do you measure success?
It doesn’t matter what I think; no matter how much I shout ‘success’ will not make me a successful person. What really matters is the good I may do to society…and in the end, that each one does his or her best in the eyes of family, society and God. However, we may have a glimpse of success by listening to others, and what they think and say about our students and their performance.
A few days ago, I received an email that gave me great joy. Kevin Hughes, a senior prosecutor at The Hague, wrote to me about Cindy and Lisa, two 3rd year students who remained at one of the international courts, after the academic trip, doing an internship. Kevin wrote, “As I am sure will not come as a surprise to you, everyone was enchanted by Lisa and Cindy. The feedback I received was universally positive, with our staff repeatedly noting that Cindy and Lisa were clearly incredibly bright, mature beyond their years and prepared to discuss issues at a very high level. As one staff member said right after meeting with them, ‘We need more students like them.’ Whether it is nature or nurture, the students you have are incredibly positive representatives of Strathmore and the program you have put in place. Cindy and Lisa, like the others before them, are both academically gifted and ethically grounded. They also have a wonderfully engaging attitude: rather than being daunted by finding themselves in a new place surrounded by older strangers, they embraced the opportunity with confidence and enthusiasm.”
PT Which countries do you visit and how do you pay for it?
We begin our trip in The Hague, the world’s peace and justice capital. There we visit the most important international courts. We also visit Amsterdam for a day. From the Netherlands, we go to Germany and stop in Cologne. At the University of Cologne we have a seminar with doctoral students, and an exam in Public International Law. From Germany, we travel to Strasbourg in France, which is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. In Strasbourg, we visit the European Parliament, which is one of the most beautiful modern buildings in the world, the European Court of Human Rights, a beautiful court in a very ugly building (it looks like a hardware factory) and the Council of Europe. We end our trip in Zurich, Switzerland, where we take our flight back home.
All the students get to go for the trip, even those on scholarship, which are a sizable proportion. They do not have to pay any extra money; these trips are included in the school budget. Truly, they are a heartbreaking sacrifice for the SLS, but it is worth every penny. We also plan well and in advance so that we get affordable prices. Believe it or not, this is doable.
It is also true that the funds used for such trips could have been used for one thousand other things, but the university has been very supportive and they see this experience as a direct and practical way to implement the mission of the university towards achieving an all-round formation.
PT What’s the feedback from the students?
You can’t believe it. It’s amazingly positive. They all come back exhausted, tired and drained, but with a wide smile on their faces. In these two grueling weeks of meetings we all bond quite naturally. I think this helps me understand them better and they gain many valuable insights from each other. These trips are also clique breakers. Any barriers within a class are broken, they are destroyed during the trip. They really become “one” which is the foundational idea contained in the Strathmore’s moto: Ut Omnes Unum Sint …. That they all may become one. They also gain powerful confidence in themselves and they start questioning in positive ways the pitfalls of our cities and infrastructure. At the same time, they develop a beautiful love and fondness for everything Kenyan or African; it is beautiful to see how they grow in love for the nation. They learn to value a lot more Kenyan food, Kenyan tea, things like Royco, the weather, our spirit of service … Europe can be quite cold and tiring for the traveler.
PT What do the institutions you visit say about the students?
First, they are very impressed at the sight of young students who are knowledgeable, smart, elegant, well-groomed and engaged; they say they have never seen such a large African group. Second, they admire the depth of their intellectual curiosity. Justice Sebutinde, for example, spoke to them at the ICJ and challenged them to aim high. Sebutinde is not only very prestigious, but she became the first African woman to be appointed a judge of the ICJ. She is amazing and very supportive.
PT Dean, what’s your parting shot?
Kenya has an amazing human capacity and natural beauty and riches. We can impress any academician in the world. I often ask myself, where did we go wrong? Where lies the solution? On the last day, one of the students voiced something we all had at the back of our minds: We don’t develop because we do not want to; we do not dare to say no to corruption. We tolerate mediocrity easily; we are too quick to compromise. We must learn to say no. Perhaps, a change of values may be the beginning of change!
Influence of ICC Prosecutor recognized for second time
International Criminal Court (ICC) Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has been listed as one of TIME magazine’s top 100 most influential people for the second time, reaffirming her role as a “leading voice pressing governments to support the quest for justice.”
Former Minister of Justice of The Gambia, Bensouda began her international career as a non-government civil servant at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, before becoming Deputy Prosecutor and later Prosecutor of the ICC.
She was first recognized as one of the World’s Most Influential People in 2012, shortly before taking office at the ICC as the first African woman to assume a top position in an international tribunal. This year, she was commended for her resilience and determination during a turbulent time for the Court.
“Justice may be blind,” wrote TIME’s Africa bureau chief, Aryn Baker. “But when it comes to the politics of where it can be applied, Bensouda knows she has to go in with her eyes wide open.”
First published by the Global Justice Weekly