Joint Harvard initiative brings leaders together to share lessons, seek solutions

Last fall Harvard became the new headquarters of the Project on Justice in Times of Transition, which brings leaders from countries undergoing transitions-emerging from, for example, a state of war-together with their counterparts from countries that have experienced similar upheaval. The goal is to create a neutral forum to encourage dialogue and pragmatic approaches to some of the toughest problems imaginable, such as reconciling long-polarized ethnic or racial groups, balancing a post-Communist state’s security needs with the public’s right to information, or establishing public trust in fledgling legal institutions.

Professor Phillip Heymann (left) and staff of the Project on Justice in Times of Transition with experts on intelligence and security services in Guatemala, Argentina, the Czech Republic, South Africa, the United States, and Canada during a conference at HLS this spring on restructuring Guatemala's intelligence systems.

Credit: Tony Loreti Professor Phillip Heymann (left) and staff of the Project on Justice in Times of Transition with experts on intelligence and security services in Guatemala, Argentina, the Czech Republic, South Africa, the United States, and Canada during a conference at HLS this spring on restructuring Guatemala’s intelligence systems.

“The Project puts great reliance on the capacity of people around the world with relevant experiences to convey what they learned to nations in transition,” said HLS Professor Philip Heymann ’60. He chairs the steering committee of the Project, which now operates under the auspices of the Law School, the Kennedy School of Government, and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

The Project’s goals and the Law School’s mission are highly compatible, Heymann said. “While the [Project’s] notion of justice is broad enough to include problems of discrimination or inequality, between blacks and whites in South Africa, for example, it also has to do with building courts and effective legal and economic institutions” in countries in transition.

The Project’s unique modus operandi originated in an unprecedented gathering in Salzburg, in 1992. The collapse of Communism had thrown many former Eastern bloc countries into turmoil. Project cofounders Wendy Luers and Timothy Phillips thought that the post-Communist states might benefit from the experiences of the Latin American countries that had also gone from a totalitarian to a democratic form of government. Luers and Phillips invited policy-makers from Eastern and Central Europe and the former Soviet Union to meet with their Latin American counterparts as well as Western European and American experts in law and human rights. “It was phenomenal, an amazing outpouring of experiences,” Luers recalled.

That event launched the Project. Its leaders have organized more than 20 major initiatives to date, in Budapest, Venice, Johannesburg, Warsaw, San Salvador, Managua, Belfast, Sarajevo, and many other locations, with the Gaza Strip up next. “There’s a huge amount of preliminary work to be sure we’re dealing with the right topics at the right time, and with the right people. There has to be a will in the leaders, whether they’re opposition or in power,” explained Luers.

Since 1992, “We’ve learned a lot,” she added. “And in every case the Project has done something good.” That includes contributing to the passage of property restitution legislation in Nicaragua, helping conceptualize the first South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and creating a conflict resolution center in El Salvador. The Project is also credited with strengthening communication among Northern Ireland’s embattled political and community groups, which helped contain tensions during the marching seasons and formation of the new executive governing body.

As the Project gained international credibility, it could no longer keep up with demand for its services. In relocating to Harvard from New York, “Our intrinsic methodology remains the same,” said Director Sara Zucker. But Harvard’s resources and “larger infrastructure” are enabling the Project to expand its activities and ambitions. That means more conferences, increased follow-up, new research and publications, and collaborations with Harvard faculty.

Heymann first got involved in the Project in 1996 and again in 1998, when he helped run weeklong programs at the Kennedy School for representatives from across Northern Ireland’s political spectrum on “the problems of forming a unified democratic government.” James Cooney, executive director of Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, and Peter Zimmerman, also of the Kennedy School, collaborated with Heymann. The workshops “were a wonderful exercise in bringing together people who had never talked to each other,” Heymann said.

When the Project came to Harvard, he readily signed on, as did Cooney and Zimmerman (they now serve with him on the steering committee). “I had been working for the last ten years in Guatemala, Colombia, South Africa, and Russia. I’m interested in building criminal justice institutions in all those countries, all of which are in times of transition,” said Heymann, who has worked extensively in government and criminal justice, including as former U.S. deputy attorney general. The Project’s mission “seemed a natural to me, a way to incorporate what I’d been doing into an organizational structure I admired.”

This spring Heymann drafted the agenda for the most recent Project event. From March 31 to April 2 he moderated roundtable talks on one of the most difficult tasks confronting Guatemala’s new administration: to restructure security and intelligence systems as mandated by the 1996 peace accord. While the accord officially ended decades of conflict, the military-run intelligence and security operations – long associated with corruption, crime, and human rights violations – have yet to be reformed.

“We wanted to look at how to put together the country’s intelligence agencies in a safer, more constructive way,” said Heymann. Four Guatemalan government officials responsible for intelligence and internal security met at HLS with experts from Argentina, Canada, the Czech Republic, South Africa, Spain, and the United States, who shared expertise to help the Guatemalan ministers plan a successful transition from military to civilian intelligence services.

The roundtable grew out of a historic conference on peace building and reconciliation held in Guatemala City last fall. Also organized by the Project, that conference drew more than 400 Guatemalans from many sectors of society and their international counterparts, including Heymann. “It was very striking to see Guatemalan generals and Mayan activists together,” he said.

A signature of the Project is that ability to gather individuals from opposite ends of their societies – be it heads of state, government officials, generals, rebels and opposition leaders, policymakers, politicians, lawyers, human rights activists, or family members of victims. “There is nothing more powerful than to hear your enemy ask the same question you are thinking about,” said Luers.

In every event, she continued, “There’s a magical moment. At first people come in feeling their situation is unique, that nobody has suffered as they have. Then, whammo, they figure out, hey, maybe somebody else has experienced something similar. But this realization must be theirs.”

When the Project’s steering committee met in March, “We went over where to go next, and we came up with about 40 places,” Heymann said. That list includes the Gaza Strip. This winter Heymann and colleagues met with Yassar Arafat in Washington, D.C., to discuss a conference to help members of the Palestinian National Authority learn about strengthening institutions of governance, promoting economic stability, and shaping a pluralistic society. This fall another meeting on Northern Ireland is planned at the Kennedy School, to continue work on the shaky peace process.

The Project also seeks funding for multi-year projects to study problems that beset one unstable country after another. As Heymann observed, “Why is it that institutions of criminal justice seem to be overwhelmed immediately after transition?” The result is “corruption and violence in Moscow, street violence in Latin American countries, vigilantism in Cape Town. . . .” He and his colleagues are considering partnering on a long-term project with “a South African institution to figure out what causes these outbursts of crime, and what institutional reforms are needed within the police, prosecutors, and the courts – with HLS paying particular attention to prosecutors and courts.”

For more information about the Project, visit its Web site at