Passport to power

Harsh regimes around the world have been built on English law degrees, writes Robert Verkaik
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The Independent Online
The former military ruler of Sierra Leone, who has arrived to study law in this country, is the latest in a long line of foreign politicians to benefit from an education in English law. Captain Valentine Strasser, 31, whose four-year reign Amnesty claims to have been marked by human rights abuses, was deposed in a coup last year. He is now studying a foundation course in law at a college in Coventry, and is expected to go on to complete a law degree at Warwick University.

If he does return to his country in a bid to regain power, he will not be the first to put an English law qualification to political use. The list of iron-rod rulers with backgrounds in English law is famously headed by Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore, who came to power in 1959 and led an authoritarian regime. He graduated from Cambridge with a double first in law and went on to become a barrister. Once in power he made controversial changes to the legal system.

The former Ugandan minister Akena Adoko studied law at the London School of Economics. He returned to Uganda to become Milton Obote's right-hand man. Obote, who was overthrown by Idi Amin, had a less than clean human rights record and he was credited for presenting the regime with a veneer of legal respectability.

There is, then, perhaps some cause for concern that English law courses are being used by foreign political activists to help prop up or impose politically suspect regimes.

Geoffrey Bindman, a human rights solicitor and former chairman of the Amnesty law group, believes that historically a legal qualification for people of Commonwealth countries has been a passport to success. "The brightest and most affluent people had to come to England," says Mr Bindman. There has been stiff competition to attract this type of student ever since the Government cut the international student grant in the Eighties, making it three times more expensive for them to study in this country. These are the sort of international students the universities and colleges have long relied on for vital income.

Nick Saunders, head of legal education at the Law Society, believes the Government's policy to restrict international student grant aid has made us unpopular abroad. Even so, it has not stopped politically sponsored students from recognising the value of an English law qualification in enhancing a political career. After all, British lawyers had been doing it for years.

Mr Saunders says it is important to remember that we exported the common law to large parts of the world. "Even now, there are quite substantial legacies of the common law existing in Commonwealth countries and other parts of the world," he says. "So there is often a lot to be gained by studying English law."

Francis Neat, chairman of the International Bar Association's business section, believes one reason English law is so popular with aspiring foreign politicians is that the model for our constitution is unwritten. In effect, that means that dictators can make it up as they go along. This may explain why a small number of foreign law students have been able to establish regimes in their own countries based on the British example. Legislation which is passed in direct contravention of human rights is easily defended on the basis that it is part of a legal constitution modelled on the British one.

"It's a way to claim that you are doing it constitutionally," says Mr Neat. "One of the problems with our common law was that, until Lord Denning started waking our judges, we basically allowed absolute power to the executive." He adds: "That tradition is very dangerous when translated to a less stable, less homogeneous society." But Mr Bindman doubts a case can be made to show that a law qualification is "a training for tyranny".

There are, he says, just as many foreign politicians who have gone on to do great things with their legal training. Mahatma Gandhi's political philosophy of non-violent civil disobedience was crystallised during his time as a law student and barrister in London. Jawaharlal Nehru also qualified as a barrister in London.

More recently, a number of South African dissidents took up law courses in this country before returning to South Africa following the abolition of apartheid. Specifically, Southampton University's law faculty has had a reputation for being a haven for foreign human rights activists who wish to see out their terms of exile before returning to shape more democratic regimes. Both Zulfikar Ali Bhutto - the first president of Pakistan, and Benazir's father - and the South African judge Albie Sachs lectured at Southampton University. So how can providers of legal education decide which foreign students are likely to use their qualifications to impose harsh regimes, and which will put them to more enlightened effect?

The case of Captain Strasser illustrates the thorny nature of this question. On the face of it, he is a bona fide student who is the subject of unproven allegations. Although admissions officers may have compelling suspicions, they cannot properly test these allegations. To do so would leave them open to accusations of acting as a self-appointed judge and jury.

"It's a very difficult issue," Mr Saunders says. "If the individual were known to have had an active involvement in those kinds of activities then I'm sure the university would not want to touch them." But Mr Neat thinks this is a dangerous road to go down: "Once you start monitoring people who are applying for places in your educational establishments, where are you going to stop?" Mr Neat suggests that colleges would then be allowed to reject students on the very flimsiest of evidence.

The problem may get worse. Mr Saunders reports that the fledgling regimes of eastern Europe are keen to embrace the UK legal system. He says there has been particular interest from Russian army officers who feel a UK legal qualification may be a useful weapon in a country with an increasingly unstable political outlook