Law Students With Laptops Link Bosnia to the Internet

American law students have been taking the Internet and its benefits to the legal community of Bosnia and into the former Communist countries of Europe. We call our volunteer initiative Project Bosnia.

We believe President Clinton's definition of the future: not a place we are going but a place we are creating. "We must be shapers of events, not observers," he proclaimed in his State of the Union address.

Over the past year Project Bosnia volunteers have become "shapers of events" in line with the president's theme. He challenged private citizens, corporations, educational institutions, and philanthropies to create programs that governments no longer can afford. He invoked the promising power of the Internet to connect us in an increasingly interdependent world. He spoke to the exciting opportunities presented by the fall of communism, including the need to be judicious in helping emerging democracies develop institutions to thrive in this changed geopolitical landscape. The president identified the first task: to build an undivided, democratic Europe, acknowledging that when Europe is stable, prosperous, and at peace, America is more secure.

Project Bosnia demonstrates the potential of the Internet to build a rule of law and, with it, peace; the role nongovernmental organizations can have in pursuing national goals; and the power of international cooperation.

The project began at Villanova University School of Law, just outside Philadelphia - the city chosen by the president for the Summit of Service, dedicated to volunteer activities, in April. Law school has instilled in us the importance of the rule of law and the demand for the free and efficient exchange of information that allows it to flourish. We take these concepts for granted in the US but, in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, these ideas need support. Internet technology embodies the free flow of information across all kinds of boundaries; by applying it to rebuilding these countries' legal infrastructures, we can help promote the rule of law essential to stability and peace.

Tremendous challenges come with assisting these countries: language barriers, differences in culture, unfamiliarity with each other's histories, and resistance to change. Yet, when two Villanova law students, a professor, and I traveled to Bosnia last summer, opened our laptops, and showed a group of government officials, judges, lawyers, and legal educators how the Internet could link their legal community, we saw their excitement and enthusiasm. They were particularly pleased by the realization that a computer linked to another computer anywhere in the world could replace libraries and courthouses destroyed during the war in Bosnia. We told them how a computer with access to the Internet can bring the world to their door, allowing scrutiny of human rights abuses and mobilizing public opinion throughout the global community.

Since our trip to Bosnia last summer, other law students and I have been to Central and Eastern Europe three times. In September two students volunteered as monitors for the first free elections since the war in Bosnia. Their desire to participate was the direct result of their involvement with Project Bosnia. In November a professor and I again traveled to Bosnia to set up Pentium computers we purchased for members of the Federation Constitutional Court, established after the Dayton accords were signed. Connected to a computer housed at Villanova Law, the justices, three of whom live outside Bosnia, can communicate with each other without leaving their homelands, rule on cases, and manage the docket of the court more effectively.

OVER our holiday break, a professor, another law student, and I visited Russia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary to advise members of their legal communities how the Internet can help their legal institutions function more efficiently. We fully expect that the Internet will revolutionize these emerging legal systems in much the same way that information technology is changing how we practice law in the United States.

We in Project Bosnia don't want to impose our values on the emerging nations of Central and Eastern Europe but to provide them with the tools to find their own way to a civil society. While democratic principles have outlived communism, the conclusion that the rest of the world needs our kind of democracy or our kind of economic system doesn't immediately follow. It is important to help these countries benefit not only from our advances in technology but from the lessons of our experience. As America defines its leadership role, perhaps we too may learn lessons that will benefit us all in the coming millennium.

Project Bosnia is a perfect example of what the president talked about. In an entirely volunteer effort, we are tapping the power of the Internet to help create a lasting peace in Bosnia, stability in Europe, and security for the United States. Students have moved from observers to shapers of policies that one day will define our global community.

* Stuart Ingis is a third-year student at Villanova University School of Law and leader of Project Bosnia.

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