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Judicial reform: a kitchen table issue

Following are remarks made by Thomas "Mack" McLarty, then U.S. special envoy to Latin America, at the conclusion of a conference on judicial reform held at IDB headquarters in Washington, D.C., in March 1998:
Effective and responsible judicial institutions are absolutely critical to sustaining economic growth and democracy. In almost every Latin American and Caribbean country that I have visited, leaders have expressed their concern about the importance of strengthening their respective judicial systems. Four years ago, at the Miami Summit of the Americas, we affirmed the so-called first generation of reforms to strengthen democracy and open markets. Three weeks from now, at the presidential summit in Santiago, Chile, I believe the focus will be on the second generation of reforms, which will seek to deepen democracy and enhance our respective democratic institutions. In this context, we should and will pay particular attention to strengthening and reforming our systems of justice.

We know from our own history, here in the United States, that justice reforms are difficult to bring about. They require considerable political will, resources and expertise, but the reward is well worth the effort. As a member of the private sector, a business owner who has now had six years in public service in the White House, I can certainly tell you that there is nothing more important in promoting economic development than a strong court system to enforce the rule of law. The sanctity of contracts is a critical part of any business agreement, and I have seen throughout our hemisphere that countries with the strongest judicial systems attract the greatest amount of both internal and foreign investment.

I think all of us would acknowledge that the rule of law can be a somewhat abstract concept. But it also has a human face and a real impact on what we sometimes refer to as "kitchen table" issues of the hemisphere --issues that affect people's lives in very real and personal ways. I'm thinking of the mothers and fathers throughout our hemisphere who have been murdered by drug criminals and whose families in some instances have received little or no justice because the courts are influenced or even infiltrated by drug cartels. I'm thinking of local businesses that have had contracts broken, sometimes even by corrupt government contractors. And yet there is little or no right of appeal. There are family farms that have been stolen by guerrilla groups. And yet without strong property rights and clear land titles, the prospect for relief is remote.

Of course we have many problems of justice that remain to be addressed here in the U.S. as well. And with so many countries in our hemisphere pursuing judicial reform we need to make it easier to learn from one another's experience. Just two weeks ago, during our summit preparation meeting here at the IDB, the government of Argentina proposed the creation of the Inter-American Justice Study Center for that very purpose. I am very pleased to report that the hemisphere's 34 governments have agreed to have the Santiago Summit consider the creation of this justice center as a resource for educating judges, prosecutors and court officials. We believe the center will provide an important forum for exchanging ideas and experiences in person and of course on the Internet. The center will conduct training events, sponsor research and produce educational materials on a wide range of judicial issues facing the hemisphere.

The stronger justice systems made possible by these efforts will have a real impact on our societies. They will strengthen our efforts to fight narcotics and traffickers, hold our respective governments accountable, and bring criminals to justice. In short, they will help strengthen our democracies.

A report on the Santiago Summit and judicial reform proposals will appear in the June issue of IDB América.

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