CZECHOSLOVAKIA, faced with the tough decision of whether to prosecute members of the former regime, is struggling to revamp a justice system that has long been short on justice. Poland is fighting economic disaster. Its new government wants to craft commercial codes to encourage investment, both national and foreign.
And Yugoslavia is working to enhance its credibility by modernizing an archaic criminal code.
All three countries share twin goals essential to their efforts to establish democracy: justice and economic prosperity. A modern legal system is required for both.
Eastern Europe's quest for justice and economic growth - undermined by decades of communist rule - is alive. We must act now to lend a hand.
One vital, practical step is to modernize these nations' legal system so as to establish a rule of law. Governments in the region properly view an independent judiciary, constitutional reforms, criminal-law revisions, environmental standards, and the guarantee of basic human rights as fundamental democratic building blocks. If justice is to be dispensed and investment encouraged, everyone must know the rules.
The United States, a nation of law and a land of lawyers, can play a positive role.
I propose a joint US-Eastern European partnership to tackle the painstaking, perhaps mundane, job of codifying the region's legal system. This partnership would be founded on enlightened, mutual self-interest.
The goal would be to enhance the credibility of Eastern Europe's legal system and act as an organizational link between the emerging Eastern European legal community and criminal lawyers and entrepreneurs and investors of the world - networking at its best.
Establishment of such a partnership might seem like a lengthy, complicated chore. But there is an existing, successful model to use in creating a similar US-Eastern European partnership.
The three-year-old Caribbean Law Institute is working to codify civil regulations in the English-speaking islands of the Caribbean. It is a joint project of the University of the West Indies in Barbados and Florida State University.
A leading attorney from Barbados directs this project, which is funded by the US Agency for International Development. Lawyers, judges, and officials in the Caribbean receive technical help in harmonizing existing laws and drafting new ones.
Through this partnership, lawyers and accountants from the Caribbean and the US have been working to improve laws on shipping, arbitration, incorporation, and trade.
Countless hours of volunteer advice have been rendered by top specialists in the US. Leading professionals from the Caribbean have become friends with their US counterparts, building a foundation for investment and commerce.
The Caribbean Law Institute does not legislate or interfere in the governing of nations that participate. That point is key, because any analogous partnership with Eastern Europe must respect its independence. Meddling serves no one's interest.
The first steps have been taken to replicate this concept in Central and Eastern Europe.
The National Endowment for Democracy (a US government-financed foundation that aids labor unions, newspapers, and political parties in fledgling democracies) has provided $400,000 to the American Bar Association to establish the Central and East European Initiative. The ABA, with more than 365,000 members, is uniquely qualified to carry out this mission in cooperation with governments in the region.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee also has voted in favor of the concept, authorizing long-term funding for legal training in Eastern Europe.
These are important steps, but more needs to be done:
The legal, academic, and accounting establishment in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Yugoslavia, and their neighbors should organize to participate in an international partnership to modernize the legal system.
The Agency for International Development, which could provide long-term support, should review the success of the Caribbean Law Institute. We don't need to reinvent the wheel.
Finally, and most important, Congress should make a commitment to long-term funding, appropriating the necessary resources to get the job done.
Central and Eastern Europe is not asking for charity, nor expecting philanthropy. They would like to be treated as partners and friends.
Americans, activists by nature, have a chance to participate in one of the most astounding political and economic transformations of this century.
In this fast-changing global economy, our mutual prosperity to some degree rests with each other. Changes in Eastern Europe in 1989 mean we must look for innovative ways to help each other in 1990.