Teaching in the West Bank with a difference makes a difference

by Laura Gould

University of Windsor Law Professor Reem Bahdi is hoping to use some innovative teaching techniques on the Canadian-Palestinian Judicial Education Project, which aims to support the judicial sector in the Palestinian Authority by promoting the impartiality of judges and training in human rights. The project, which she started in 2004, is being implemented in collaboration with Birzeit University in the West Bank.

Law Professor Reem Bahdi
Law Professor Reem Bahdi

Prof. Bahdi is quick to recognize her good fortune in being able to draw upon the expertise of three top Canadian judicial educators who are also involved in the project: Federal Court Justice Doug Campbell, retired Supreme Court Justice Claire L’Heureux-Dubé, and Alberta Chief Justice Catherine Fraser. “We’re hoping to employ some of the creative methods that the Canadian judges have used in other contexts around the world and really work with the idea of experiential-based learning,” says Prof. Bahdi.

To this end, Prof. Bahdi hopes to involve the Centre for Flexible Learning (CFL) at the University of Windsor. “I know CFL is committed to questions of pedagogy and learning, so it’s one of the places on campus where I think we can really go to draw on the skills, experiences and the resources they have in terms of approaches to delivery of materials. One of the big things we’re going to be exploring under the rubric of this project is the appropriate educational methodology. We’re quite certain that we don’t want to go in and just lecture.”

The project is built on the principles of equality as much as it aims to promote the principles of equality
– Professor Reem Bahdi

Prof. Bahdi believes that distance education could be another very exciting component of this project. “When we went down recently with the judges, Catherine Fraser and Doug Campbell, our plan was to go to Gaza, to meet with some of the judges there, because we were meeting with the High Judicial Council and most of them live and work in the Gaza Strip. We had made all the arrangements to go:  transportation, the logistics of the meeting, etcetera, but the day we arrived we were told we couldn’t get into the Gaza Strip, that it was closed. So we had to scramble and at the last minute we had to pull together a video conference meeting, which was hardly ideal. But we anticipate things like this happening again. Fine, this time we only had to pull together a one hour meeting, but what if it happens that we can’t do a whole workshop or an entire conference? So the concept of distance learning is something that we’d really like to explore: how we can use the distance learning principles in the context of this project, given the political realities of the region.”

The project has led Bahdi to make visits to the region for almost two years now. “The first phase of this project in 2004 was my first trip, as part of the feasibility study funded by The Human Security Programme at Foreign Affairs,” explains Prof. Bahdi. “We met with a wide group of individuals and it became clear very quickly who our partners had to be. As a result, I began working with Justice Ass'ad Mubarak, of the Palestinian High Court, and Chair of the Judicial Education Committee, as well as Dr. Mudar Kassis, Director of the Institute of Law at Birzeit University (IoL), the leading Palestinian institution on legal and judicial reform.”

After this initial assessment mission, everyone involved agreed that Canada had much to contribute to this process in the areas of governance, security and the economy and a proposal to the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) for a February 2005 conference was made.

And thus, in February, 2005, Prof. Bahdi found herself traveling to the West Bank to attend The Institute of Law Conference on Judicial Education and the Advancement of Human Dignity, jointly organized by the Faculty of Law at the University of Windsor, the IoL and the Palestinian High Judicial Council (HJC).

“The conference was the second phase, where we were testing our ideas,” says Prof. Bahdi. “It was very well received by the judiciary. There was a great deal of enthusiasm for our coming back, so we put together a larger proposal and our timing couldn’t have been better, in that it was in keeping with the Prime Minister’s commitment to support the area’s institutions.”

Effective government systems, especially effective human rights and democratic systems, are vital to managing diversity and inclusion in any society.”
– Minister Aileen Carroll

Canada supports the vision of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side within secure and recognized borders, and a peaceful resolution to the current conflict through negotiation. In seeking to help realize this vision, development assistance is a vital element of Canada's Middle East policy.

Consequently, the partners’ efforts were rewarded on May 27, 2005, when Prime Minister Paul Martin made the announcement, on the occasion of the visit of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, that Canada would contribute $4.5 million to the Canadian-Palestinian Judicial Education Project.  “The Prime Minister’s office has been very supportive of the project,” states Prof. Bahdi, “and so has Minister Pierre Pettigrew who at the very beginning funded it through Foreign Affairs. Now that it’s funded under the auspices of CIDA, Aileen Carroll, the Minister of International Cooperation for CIDA, has been tremendously supportive as well.”

In addition to this crucial financial and political support, the issue of trust has been a key factor in this entire process. “Let me illustrate from an institutional perspective why trust is so important,” explains Prof. Bahdi. “When you ask a judge to make a decision based on human rights principles, judges who do that put themselves out, potentially, for criticism. Let’s just think, for example, in the Canadian context about the judiciary and same-sex marriage cases. These are issues that attract a lot of attention and scrutiny from many different elements of society. So you’re really asking judges to put themselves out on a limb. In order to be able to go there with the judiciary, you really have to have a strong relationship with them. Usually what this means is that because the judicial task is such a unique one in society, in any society, it’s always useful to be working with judges who can say, ‘Yes, we understand. We understand the pressures that you’re under, we understand the risks that you’re taking,’ at least to a certain extent.  Of course the pressures and risks are very different from one society to the next, but this understanding in the general sense is crucial.

“The other reason trust is so important,” elaborates Prof. Bahdi, ”is that we’re a western society working in the Palestinian context, and Palestinians have always been dominated from the outside. Self-determination is something that has been largely denied them, historically and recently. The law has played a large part in that denial. Laws have always been imposed from the outside. So there’s that added sensitivity of working in a culture and working in a political context that has both a history, and even a current structure, of colonialism. Additionally, it’s a Muslim society and so we have to be aware of, and sensitive to, the different perspectives and cultural practices. You can see that trust is therefore not only a big piece of personal relationships, but a big part of institutional building given the larger social/political/cultural context that we’re dealing with. We always have to be in tune with that.

"Effective government systems, especially effective human rights and democratic systems, are vital to managing diversity and inclusion in any society," said Carroll. "Canada is proud to be making a difference in the lives of citizens, including the poor, women, and children, in the West Bank and Gaza."

“That’s the other thing we’ve done which has been very important and goes hand in hand with the idea of trust and relationship building:  we don’t just go in and say, ‘Okay, we’re here as educators, you sit and listen.’ At the conference back in February, we naturally included the judiciary in the planning of the conference. But not only were they included, they were actually the leaders in the delivery of the material. And so we were there also not only to participate in delivering materials, but also we sat back and we were the learners for a good portion of the sessions as well. The project is built on the principles of equality as much as it aims to promote the principles of equality.”

For more information about the Canadian government's policies regarding Middle East issues, go to their web site.

With that sense of equality in mind, Bahdi thinks the project’s Palestinian partners choose whom they’ll work with very carefully. “They know there are many different motivations out there and various levels of understanding. We’ve been very lucky with the partners we have. We have an excellent working relationship; not only have I been there about once a month, but I’m in touch with them on a regular basis by email and we talk on the phone at least once a week. I’ve been to the region almost monthly for the last six months. So it’s really a matter of going, showing that you’re dedicated, you’re committed, and that you’re there for the long haul. Everything we do is done in partnership, every decision is made together.”

As far as what’s next for the partners on this project, Prof. Bahdi states, “Right now we’re getting our agreement signed, a $4.5 million contribution from CIDA. We’re just finalizing some of the smaller details. And then what will happen is we’ll go into strategic planning for a couple of months where we really focus on the details of the project. This means that we’ll work most closely with our two institutional partners and after that I hope, say, six months from now, we can start the actual training sessions in earnest, getting together with the judges themselves on a regular basis. Additionally, and we haven’t confirmed this yet, but what we’re thinking is that we’ll have annual sessions where we bring Palestinian judges to Windsor to do a Train the Trainer kind of program at the University of Windsor. We’ll also have a number of plenary sessions with the judiciary as a whole, in either the West Bank or Gaza, which would involve me and the Canadian judges going back. The project also involves identifying other people within Canada and internationally who can support us, either by coming forward as trainers or helping us develop training materials.”

“…things that are worth doing involve risk and they involve work, and this involves both.”
-Professor Reem Bahdi

The project necessarily involves a great deal of the work Bahdi describes in a relatively small timeframe. “We’re looking at five years but I think we can do a lot in that time. The Palestinian judiciary is rather small in size. Right now there are about 120. The numbers will, no doubt, grow within the next few years when we expect to see about 150. But still it’s not a huge group. If we can bring 15 people to Windsor to work with us on a regular basis in a Train the Trainer project, that’s 10 per cent of the judiciary. These people then become the mentors and trainers within the larger Palestinian judiciary.”

Bahdi’s enthusiasm for the project is infectious. “It’s a fantastic project; I am just so excited about it. It’s a project where the Palestinians are enthusiastic and wanting to work with the people and the ideas that we bring from the University of Windsor. And the University of Windsor is tremendously committed to the project. At the Law School, for example, we have an access to justice theme and this is a manifestation of that theme. Additionally, at the higher political levels, it’s in line with what we’re hoping to accomplish as a country in our foreign policy. So it’s just such a privilege to be working with our Canadian judges and with the Palestinian partners on this.”

Although obviously energized and encouraged, Bahdi is quick to point out the level of commitment involved in this undertaking. “It’s certainly not an easy project. But the things that are worth doing involve risk and they involve work, and this involves both.”

Laura Gould is a Windsor area writer, instructor, visual artist, and guest editor for this inaugural issue of reFLEXions.

Back to Top -- Updated October 31, 2005 06:47 PM
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