The International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ) received the 2023 Bolch Prize for the Rule of Law during a ceremony on March 1, 2023, at the Nasher Museum of Art on Duke University’s campus.
The Bolch Prize is awarded annually by the Bolch Judicial Institute of Duke Law School to honor extraordinary efforts to advance and protect the rule of law. The IAWJ was recognized for its ongoing work to evacuate and resettle its 250 Afghan members after the Taliban reclaimed power in late 2021.
Women judges in Afghanistan face particularly virulent threats of reprisal and violence under Taliban rule, which has imposed harsh restrictions on women and girls. Women judges had worked to build a democracy, had participated in the development and administration of new courts — including domestic violence courts — designed to bring equality and justice under the law to women and girls, and had dared to sit in judgment of men — all punishable acts under the new regime. Since August 2021, the IAWJ has successfully evacuated 200 judges and is still working to rescue those who remain in Afghanistan.
“It is clear that the International Association of Women Judges embodies the ideals that the Bolch Prize is designed to honor,” said Paul W. Grimm, the David F. Levi Professor of the Practice of Law and Director of the Bolch Judicial Institute. “Through its mission to support and empower a global network of women judges, to advance gender equality and human rights through its vision of a world where gender equality, respect for human rights, and inclusive justice systems are the norm, and through its extraordinary work to help Afghanistan’s women judges in their time of dire need, the IAWJ offers us all an example of what it means to protect and support the rule of law.”
- Watch the full 2023 ceremony here.
The ceremony featured several distinguished speakers, including Duke Law School Dean Kerry Abrams; Susan Bass Bolch, founder of the Bolch Judicial Institute; North Carolina Chief Justice Paul M. Newby; David F. Levi, president of The American Law Institute and director emeritus of the Bolch Judicial Institute; Judge Allyson Duncan, a retired judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and a regional president of the International Association of Judges (IAJ); Judge Susan Bakhshi, a former judge of Afghanistan and a member of the IAWJ; and Dame Susan Glazebrook, a justice of the Supreme Court of New Zealand and president of the IAWJ.
“When the Taliban invaded Kabul in the late summer of 2021, the IAWJ reacted immediately and in a way that was hands-on,” said Judge Duncan, noting that the IAJ has partnered with the IAWJ in numerous efforts to counter threats to judges worldwide, but because of its structure and composition, the IAWJ was able to respond to the Afghan crisis more quickly and nimbly than many other similar organizations. “Within days, the IAWJ was able to mobilize resources, raise funds to charter planes, $800,000 per plane, for evacuation and help oversee escape routes. It was a combined goodwill effort in which each had a role to play, but the work of the IAWJ was swift, breathtaking, and unparalleled.”
Pursuing justice in the face of crisis
David F. Levi noted that the Bolch Prize honors the IAWJ’s astonishing rescue effort as well as the extraordinary bravery of its Afghan members, who have long been subject to persecution.
“Even before the Taliban retook power, two women judges of Afghanistan’s Supreme Court had been assassinated,” he said. “Women judges had long faced discrimination and threats from defendants in their courts and even from people with whom they worked. They were battling years of oppression in a culture that expected women to defer to men, to stay in the home, and to stay out of the public eye. These women judges had defied these expectations and had dared to sit in judgment of men.”
“As we honor the IAWJ tonight,” Levi continued, “we particularly honor the IAWJ’S Afghan members who have demonstrated such courage, dignity, and commitment to the rule of law at such personal cost.”
Judge Bakhshi spoke movingly of her personal experience serving as a judge in Afghanistan, a position she loved despite the dangers she faced daily. “I had to travel to work on a very dangerous highway. People named that highway ‘Road of Death,’ because always Taliban attacked government employees on that road, and my colleagues were attacked and lost on that road. It was a challenge,” she said.
But she and her colleagues were undeterred.
“My goals were much greater than those threats and obstacles. I witnessed the importance of having women in judicial positions,” she said. “Throughout history, women have been the prey of men’s political whims at the political and social leadership levels. In order to assure that women are not deprived of their rights simply because of their gender, it requires that they must have leaders of their kind to personally understand their issues and stand up against gender discrimination.”
Judge Bakhshi was on her way to work on Aug. 15, 2021, when she learned that the Taliban had taken control of Kabul. She and her colleagues immediately returned home and went into hiding. The judges received word that the Taliban was opening all the prisons and freeing men who had been convicted of crimes — many of whom had been sentenced by women judges. Not only were the women judges concerned about reprisal from the Taliban, but they also feared retribution from the men they had sentenced to prison. The situation was untenable.
With help from the IAWJ and its partners on the ground at the Kabul airport, Judge Bakhshi was able to leave Afghanistan with her brother. Leaving the rest of her family behind was “the hardest decision of my life.” She is now pursuing an LLM degree in the United States and, like many of her colleagues, she hopes to rebuild her career in the legal profession.
- Watch a 12-minute documentary about the crisis facing Afghan women judges shown at the Bolch Prize ceremony.
Living up to IAWJ values
The IAWJ had worked with the Association of Women Judges of Afghanistan since 2003, organizing joint conferences, educational programs, and mentorships to assist women as they were entering law schools and the judiciary during the country’s effort to build a democracy. Thanks to relationships formed during these programs, the IAWJ was well aware of — and uniquely positioned to respond to — the dangers its Afghan members would face if the Taliban were to re-take power.
When the Taliban began its march toward Kabul in summer 2021, Afghan women judges asked IAWJ leaders for help publicizing the dangers they would face under Taliban rule. But by Aug. 15, as Glazebrook recounted, “our Afghan Support Committee was left with no choice but to try and assist our colleagues and friends to get to safety. Needless to say, it was not part of our normal role as judges or even as IAWJ leaders. But the values of the IAWJ, the values that organization espouses would’ve seemed empty indeed if we were not prepared to live by them.”
The IAWJ was able to evacuate 30 judges, some with their families, in the early chaotic days after the Taliban reclaimed control. In later months, through partnerships with governments, NGOs, lawyers, law schools, and others around the globe, the IAWJ has evacuated more than 100 additional judges and families. Many have permanently resettled in new countries, but some remain in limbo in “lily pad” countries — countries that agreed to allow the judges to land on a temporary basis after evacuation — waiting on visas and slow immigration processes.
“We still have some 54 judges and their families in hiding and at risk in Afghanistan,” said Justice Glazebrook. “The focus is on the painstaking task of getting one family out at a time, and they then face long waits, possibly up to two years before being processed for final destinations, we’re hoping mostly to the United States. All this comes at a time when the conditions in Afghanistan are deteriorating and the danger to women judges and women generally is escalating. Restrictions on women are tightening every day and impacting every facet of their daily lives.”
Justice Glazebrook reflected on the lessons of the IAWJ’s work in Afghanistan, noting that technology — especially encrypted communication tools and a database that provided quick access to personal information about IAWJ members — was critical to the organization’s ability to assist its Afghan members quickly and efficiently. She quoted a colleague’s quip about another lesson learned from a 24-hour Zoom staffed by IAWJ members around the world to provide a constant mode of communication with Afghan colleagues: “‘Never underestimate the power of a group of determined old women in their pajamas.’”
“The final lesson relates to both the importance of, but also the fragility of the rule of law,” she said. “It can be compromised suddenly and completely as happened in Afghanistan, but it can also be compromised by stealth and by stages. We must be ever vigilant and protective. And just to be clear, I’m talking about what is commonly called the ‘thick’ concept of the rule of law, whereby, alongside procedurally focused requirements related to the manner in which laws are promulgated and ensuring that nobody is above the law, there are substantive requirements, including the protection and promotion of human rights, an independent judiciary, respect for international law, and access to justice. Without these substantive requirements, the rule of law would be sterile indeed.”
Judge Grimm echoed her sentiments. “Threats to the rule of law come in many forms,” he said. “We have heard tonight of the especially harrowing threats that accompanied the collapse of a society, and we must hope the situation is not replicated in other vulnerable parts throughout the world. We have seen how autocrats attempt to dismantle the rule of law by attacking the judiciary, undermining its independence, firing or imprisoning judges, or simply by disregarding court decisions that they disagree with. But there are less obvious, but no less insidious threats. Social media campaigns that spread disinformation and sow doubt in the systems impartiality, or political fights over judicial appointments, or the funding for courts.
“Public faith in the judiciary is our best guardrail against these threats,” Grimm continued. “Judges can nurture that faith by doing their work carefully, transparently, respectfully, and honorably, by doing whatever they can to make sure that the justice system is as fair and efficient as it can be. But it’s not enough that the judicial system is fair and impartial. It must also be perceived as such by the public. We, as teachers and students and citizens, must do our part to contribute to this effort by providing accurate information about the courts to our neighbors, colleagues, and friends by supporting civic education programs and by standing up for the rule of law, whether or not we agree with the results of any particular judicial decision and by working to make sure that the system is fair and equitable for all.”
Click here to learn more about the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ) and the Bolch Prize for the Rule of Law.