Sunday, May 19, 2024
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The relevance of law and order in transitions – lessons from former Yugoslavia

The end of the 20th century was rich in wars, military conflicts, territorial shifts, and revolutions. The world at the beginning of the 21st century no longer looks as integral and stable as it seemed 30-40 years ago. The 1990s brought tumultuous changes, with their highest concentration in the Balkans-Europe. The unprecedented dissolution of the Soviet Union, coupled with violent and bloody conflict in former Yugoslavia, created a huge area of uncertainty and made the future of the Balkans-Europe virtually unpredictable. In many respects, the disintegration of the Soviet Union was an example of a less-bloody and coordinated strategy of effective transition to independence, emphasizing the importance of law and order in that process. Yugoslavia was the extreme example of a bloody, murderous conflict that led to territorial disintegration and the subsequent emergence of several newly independent, autonomous states. To a large extent, Yugoslavia was everything the world did not want to see during countries’ transitions to independence and autonomy. Its lessons should also be learned by Ethiopia, emphasizing the importance of law and order, peaceful agreements, as well as the separation of law from politics, to achieve the best political and socioeconomic results for Ethiopian citizens.

Yugoslavia is a textbook example of territorial dissolution, a country that went through blood and tortures to become a set of independent nations. The civil war that captured the entire Balkan region revealed and reaffirmed the importance of law and order during historical, socioeconomic, and political transitions. Researchers suggest that, the dissolution of Yugoslavia, was in itself a product of poor commitments to law and order. (Accetto, 2007; Cornell & Salisbury, 2002) As an example, “Bosnia – like many of the states in the former Yugoslavia – has had no experience with a democratic legal system or an independent judiciary” (p. 401). That is, the lack of independent judiciary in Bosnia is compared and associated with that of Yugoslavia, which had gone through troubled times with its Judiciary and the Constitutional Court. The demise of Yugoslavia was in part a product of the misbalanced constitutional arrangements, which centralized federal power compromised the integrity and promise of the federal constitutional system (Accetto, 2007). This being said, it is no surprise that the entire process of dissolution and transformation of Yugoslavia into several autonomous states went against the most fundamental principles of law and order. Yugoslavia lacked any system that could guide the process and minimize human and property losses. These tragic lessons should become a powerful source of knowledge for Ethiopia, providing a legal and ethical framework for peaceful political transitions at times of change.

Interestingly, Yugoslavia is not the only illustration of law and order in action during transitions. Cohen (2005) reports on the function of law and legal institutions in China’s transition through modernization toward a capitalist state. Cohen (2005) notes that, when modernization and transition to open market systems became inevitable, China immediately focused on redesigning its legal system to meet the new political, economic, and social demands. Since the beginning of the 1970s, China has passed a multitude of laws that balances the change with law and orders to support its peaceful transition to a new political philosophy while assuring the country that its territories and borders were safe. All these lessons provide a framework for implementing peaceful changes in Ethiopia, in ways that benefit every citizen and reduce the risks of unnecessary frictions.

In this context, several major lessons deserve attention. Firstly, peaceful transitions are not possible without a solid legal foundation. What it means is that Ethiopia needs a well-designed and properly functioning legal system that will guide its transition to a new state of political and socioeconomic performance. The dissolution of Yugoslavia was partly the result of a poorly constructed legal system. Members of the federation were entirely dissatisfied with the way the balance of powers was distributed and maintained. China, on the other hand, created a legal basis for modernization and continued economic growth. Thus, any transition for Ethiopia should begin with structuring its legal system, to make sure that the rule of law is affirmed; law and order protected.

Secondly, law and politics should be separated to maintain a peaceful character of political and economic transitions in Ethiopia. The legal system in the former Yugoslavia was highly politicized. The politics of federal authorities in Yugoslavia guided the decisions and actions taken by the country’s judicial system, including the Constitutional Court (Accetto, 2007). Any mixture of politics and legal decision-making is a critical factor, which jeopardizes the promise of effective transitions and increases the risks of unnecessary tensions.

In conclusion, Yugoslavia went through a period of human loss, coupled with the loss of territories and their disintegration. Without a robust legal system and with the presence of a strong political bias, Yugoslavia could not manage its transitions peacefully. China provided a different example, creating a legal foundation for its transition from a closed to an open economy. Ethiopia can learn both lessons, looking deeper into its legal system and restructuring its courts and legal system to avoid bloody conflicts and encourage a smooth and effective transition to a new level of political, economic, and social activity. A country as diverse as Yugoslavia, Ethiopia can avoid similar mistakes. Yugoslavian experience can become a powerful incentive for redesigning Ethiopia’s legal system to separate it from politics.

Ed.’s Note: Samuel Alemu, Esq is a partner at the ILBSG, LLP. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School, and Addis Ababa University. Samuel has been admitted to the bar associations of New York State, United States Tax Court, and the United States Court of International Trade. The writer can be reached at [email protected]. Samuel’s Twitter handle is @salemu.

Contributed by Samuel Alemu

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