The Bolch Judicial Institute has named the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ) as the 2023 recipient of the Bolch Prize for the Rule of Law in recognition of the organization’s remarkable efforts to evacuate, support, and resettle Afghan women judges who, because of their gender and work as judges, have faced persecution and violence since the Taliban took control of the country in late 2021.
The IAWJ will be honored during a ceremony at Duke University on March 1, 2023.
Under the leadership of New Zealand Supreme Court Justice Susan Glazebrook, president of the IAWJ and the association’s Afghan Support Committee, the IAWJ mobilized member judges from around the world to assist Afghan women judges in the days leading up to and the months following the collapse of Afghanistan’s democracy in August 2021. Recognizing the particular dangers Afghanistan’s women judges face under Taliban rule, IAWJ members have worked — and continue to work — tirelessly to secure safe passage out of the country for the judges and their families and assist them in obtaining visas and relocating to countries where they can rebuild their lives and careers.
“The IAWJ has led an extraordinary rescue operation, bringing more than 100 Afghan women judges and many of their families to safety and continuing efforts to assist those who remain,” said David F. Levi, director of the Bolch Judicial Institute. “The Bolch Prize for the Rule of Law recognizes both the heroism of the IAWJ’s efforts to assist Afghanistan’s women judges and the organization’s long history of supporting and advancing women judges and addressing gender inequities in judicial and justice systems around the world. And in honoring the IAWJ, we also honor the incredible courage of Afghanistan’s women judges, who broke barriers and risked personal safety to try to build a better future for their country and now call on the international community for help as they work to rebuild their lives.”
“The IAWJ has worked for decades to surmount the numerous obstacles women judges face around the world,” said Kerry Abrams, dean of Duke Law School. “From gender-based discrimination and legal structures that subjugate women to professional hierarchies that force women into limited roles, women in judicial positions face many barriers, in all corners of the world. Through mentoring, partnerships, educational opportunities, and global outreach, the IAWJ created a network of members around the world who have worked together to address common challenges, to support one another in overcoming barriers, and to strengthen the rule of law. That network also put the IAWJ in an unparalleled position to provide on-the-ground help to Afghan women judges when they suddenly needed to flee their collapsing country.”
The Susan and Carl Bolch Jr. Prize for the Rule of Law is awarded annually by the Bolch Judicial Institute of Duke Law School to an individual or organization who has demonstrated extraordinary dedication to the rule of law and advancing rule of law principles around the world. By recognizing those who do this work, the Bolch Prize draws attention to the ideals of justice and judicial independence and to the constitutional structures and safeguards that undergird a free society.
“I can think of no more deserving and timely recipient of the Bolch Prize than the International Association of Women Judges,” said Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont, and Senate President Pro Tempore), who has been instrumental in assisting the IAWJ with evacuation and relocation efforts. “IAWJ’s passionate and relentless advocacy for Afghan women judges and lawyers since the day of the Taliban’s return to power has inspired me and others in Congress to continue to advocate for their resettlement in places of safety. IAWJ has made us proud by standing up for Afghans who rose to the top of a profession that has been historically closed to them and who risked their lives to establish the rule of law, in a country where doing so could mean death with impunity. They are remarkable role models for women and girls everywhere.”
Spanning Decades: The IAWJ’s Work in Afghanistan
In the early 2000s, after the Taliban’s ouster in 2001 by international forces, women in Afghanistan leapt at the opportunity to pursue an education and work outside the home. More than 250 women became judges at all levels of the judiciary as Afghanistan rebuilt its justice system. They endured discrimination and violence, including assassinations, as they pushed the boundaries of their country’s traditional expectations for women’s roles. For 20 years, they fought for and achieved positions that were once off limits to them, forging news paths for themselves and their country.
In 2003, the IAWJ launched a coordinated effort to assist Afghan women in developing leadership skills and deepening their legal and judicial training. Judge Patricia Whalen, a former Vermont family court judge and a judge of the War Crimes Tribunal for Bosnia and Herzegovina, worked in partnership with Afghan judges and IAWJ executive staff to create an education program that brought Afghan women to Vermont and Washington, D.C., to observe court proceedings, discuss legal issues with American judges, and meet women leaders in business, politics, and law. These exchanges expanded into conferences, educational programs, and friendships.
“The members of IAWJ have a longstanding relationship with their sister judges in Afghanistan, and even before the Taliban’s takeover of the country, IAWJ predicted and prepared for the disaster that has ensued. The courage displayed by the women judges in Afghanistan is mirrored by that of IAWJ, and by its commitment to saving every single one of these judges,” said Virginia Sloan, a member of the IAWJ Board of Managerial Trustees and founder of The Constitution Project. “Many organizations and individuals have worked tenaciously to rescue and resettle Afghan women judges, but none with more dedication and devotion than the International Association of Women Judges, which has led this multi-faceted effort.”
An Emergency Mobilization and Rescue Effort
When the Taliban began to reclaim power over the summer of 2021, the IAWJ was well aware of the risks to its members in Afghanistan. The fact that these women were educated, held jobs, and had sat in judgment of men would make them especially vulnerable to retribution from the Taliban, which in many areas of the country has reimposed restrictions on women in public life, shut down girls’ schools and universities, forbidden women from leaving their homes without a male chaperone, and forced women to wear full body and face coverings in public.
“On the 15th of August of 2021, after 20 years of democracy-building initiatives, the Taliban reclaimed Afghanistan’s capital city, Kabul, placing the 250 Afghan women judges and their families in mortal danger not only of retribution from the Taliban but also of private revenge attacks from the criminals and terrorists the Taliban had released from prison,” said Justice Glazebrook. “A small group from the International Association of Women Judges decided that we would not be true to our values and the values of the IAWJ if we did not try to help these courageous women judges who had already sacrificed so much to uphold the rule of law and gender equality. Over half are now safe in final destinations and starting to rebuild their lives, but we will not be satisfied until we can fulfill the promise we made to our Afghan colleagues and friends not to forget anyone.”
As the Taliban moved into Kabul in August, Afghan members of the IAWJ began to connect with their counterparts around the world. The IAWJ opened a Zoom meeting, monitored 24 hours a day by IAWJ judges from around the world, to coordinate evacuations; other secure communications mechanisms were deployed for quick communication among Afghan judges, IAWJ committee members, and those who were organizing evacuations on the ground.
“When governments fail in their responsibility to protect against mass violence, it falls on its citizens to do what they can,” Judge Whalen said. “Our sister judges in Afghanistan worked tirelessly to establish and sustain the rule of law. We share the same commitment and job description. We, however, operate in an environment of respect and safety, they do not. The Taliban has pledged to eliminate them from public view, dismantle their courts and has called for executions. We simply could not abandon them.”
Intense rescue efforts played out in real time, as the IAWJ tried to guide judges and their families from bus stops to the Kabul airport and to planes on the tarmac that were prepared to take them on board — often amid gunfire and through the press of thousands of panicked people desperately trying to leave Afghanistan before international troops disappeared for good. [Read personal accounts of these evacuations in Judicature.]
“We sort of fell into the role out of necessity, and we were very much outside our comfort zone,” said Justice Mona Lynch, a judge of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court and a member of the IAWJ’s Afghan Judges Support Committee. “We worked with different governments and NGOs to help evacuate the Afghan women judges. We quickly began providing passwords, and other signals — markings on hands or wearing certain colored clothing — that judges could use to get into the airport and on a plane. The Afghan women judges were desperate, and the IAWJ was a trusted organization which they turned to for help.”
Work still to be done
Though international troops have long since departed Kabul and global media attention has turned to other crises, the IAWJ continues to work with its valued partners to evacuate all who remain and wish to leave, as well as to assist the women judges who have safely evacuated but still seek permanent residency, new homes for their families, and new careers.
“It is unfortunate that we live in a time when so many forces are working to destroy democratic institutions and undermine the rule of law, when judges around the world face threats of violence and death simply for their efforts to do their jobs,” said U.S. District Judge Paul Grimm of the District of Maryland and incoming director of the Bolch Judicial Institute. “The IAWJ has not only done the heroic work of rescuing those women judges whose lives are at immediate risk in Afghanistan, but it also has demonstrated the critical importance of a global community of colleagues who share the values of justice and the rule of law, who can educate the public about the important work that judges do, and who can sound the alarm when catastrophe strikes.”
District of Columbia Court of Appeals Judge Vanessa Ruiz, immediate past president of the IAWJ, said that she hopes the Bolch Prize can remind the international legal community that the crisis in Afghanistan is not over.
“It is an honor for IAWJ to receive the Bolch Prize in recognition of our work to help Afghan women judges out of their perilous situation in Afghanistan,” said Judge Ruiz. “I hope this will bring attention to their continuing need for support, both to escape from Afghanistan and to make the difficult transition for a positive future in the U.S. and other countries. Their bravery, dignity, and commitment to the rule of law deserve the respect and admiration this recognition will highlight.”
About the IAWJ
The IAWJ includes over 6,500 members from all levels of the judiciary in more than 100 countries and territories around the world. It works to realize gender equality, respect for human rights, and inclusive justice systems by supporting and empowering its global network of women judges and supporters. Core initiatives include efforts to educate judicial communities on sex trafficking, gender-based violence, and sexual exploitation in the workplace; to train judicial actors to fight corruption, defend judicial independence, and identify and overcome systemic barriers to gender equality; and to develop and advance women’s leadership in the law and judicial systems. By leveraging the engagement and leadership of women judges, the IAWJ aims to transform and apply a more gender-inclusive perspective to judicial systems around the world. Visit iawj.org to learn more about their mission, leadership, and needs.
About the Bolch Prize
The Bolch Prize for the Rule of Law is awarded in accordance with the Bolch Judicial Institute’s founding documents, which specify that the Prize “shall be given by the Bolch Judicial Institute to recognize the lifetime achievement of an individual or a single or series of acts of an individual or an organization creating, promoting, or preserving the importance of the rule of law nationally or internationally.”
The recipient is selected by the Bolch Judicial Institute’s Advisory Board and honored during a ceremony at Duke University. The Prize includes a custom artwork and a significant monetary award. The first prize was awarded in April 2019, to Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy (retired) at a ceremony held on Duke University’s campus. The 2020 and 2021 prizes were awarded to Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke of the South Africa Constitutional Court and retired Chief Justice Margaret Marshall of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, respectively, during a virtual ceremony in June 2021, and Judge J. Clifford Wallace of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit at a ceremony in San Diego in March 2022.