Opening Remarks by POL/ECON Chief David Stephenson at the International Judicial Conference

Respected colleagues, Good Morning.  On behalf of America, I would like to welcome you this morning, and I am honored to join you.

I applaud Judge Nanev, Judge Saiti, and the Supreme Court for initiating this conference on judicial independence, accountability, and ethics.  The organizers came to us and urged us to support this event, explaining that it is a critical time for judicial independence in Macedonia.  We decided to sponsor this conference because of its potential to be a catalyst for positive change.  This is a tangible opportunity for Macedonian judges to collaborate with their colleagues from the region, Europe, and the U.S. to openly address the needs of the judiciary and carve out solutions for the way forward.  We also believe the exposure to alternative views and substantive dialogue with international peers will be invaluable for Macedonia’s judges.

With 20 years’ experience as a lawyer and as a diplomat, I can tell you rule of law is essential to peace, prosperity, and security.  Those countries which have independent courts succeed in building both democracy and economy.  As Ambassador Caroline Kennedy once said, “The bedrock of our democracy is the rule of law and that means we have to have an independent judiciary, judges who can make decisions independent of the political winds that are blowing.”

Macedonia will hold elections on December 11.  The U.S. and its European partners are united in the belief that good, clean elections are a first step to getting out of the political crisis that has paralyzed this country for two years.  Elections alone, however, will not end the crisis.  Reforms, particularly dealing with the rule of law, and especially dealing with the crisis in the judiciary, need to be urgently addressed, and the recommended changes can be prepared now for action after the new government takes office.  It will take real courage, not just from the political leaders, but from you and your colleagues, to make sure that real reform happens in the judiciary – that you break free from a devastating cycle that is destroying you from the inside and betraying the confidence of the people.   And the third principle that the United States and the EU agree upon is that of accountability.  The cases brought by the Special Prosecutor dealing with unauthorized communication intercepts and  high-level corruption and abuses should be considered  by an impartial and fair judiciary, free of political influence.  This process is critical to show that Macedonia has the capacity to deal with such accusations.

Sometimes people ask me who my boss is.  The easy answer is the Ambassador.  But that’s not the answer I give.  I tell them I am accountable to the American people – the taxpayers who pay my salary.  Ultimately, I must show these taxpayers that the $55 million they have contributed to Macedonia has ensured that all Macedonian citizens are governed by the same laws and that law breakers will be held accountable after an impartial and fair hearing in court.  Macedonia and the United States have taken many bold steps together in the rule of law area to protect fundamental rights.  But all of this work is at risk if judges cannot or do not insist on their independence.  Unfortunately, there are many reports, including the Priebe Report that is on the agenda, that should cause alarm, including the manipulation of the U.S.-funded random case assignment system; sudden reshuffling of judges without cause; significant changes in the courts’ practice of routinely granting pre-trial motions until the Special Prosecutor began its operations; rulings that seem inconsistent with the facts and applicable law.  Macedonia has a strong recusal law for judges who are who are not or do not appear impartial, which should be vigorously applied.

Accountability also applies to the judiciary.  Judges should find a way to police themselves, to sanction those that succumb to or create an atmosphere of pressure and a sense of pre-determined outcome on cases dealing with political interests. The only pressure judges should be subject to is the absolute duty to follow the law of the Republic of Macedonia in a fair and transparent manner.

Esteemed judges, I recognize the challenges to perform your judicial mandates in today’s difficult environment, but it is these circumstances that make it more vital that you do so with integrity and strict adherence to the rule of law.  A strong democracy in Macedonia cannot exist without a judiciary that is transparent and independent from politics and improper influence.   The citizens deserve a judiciary that acts with integrity, rules consistent with the facts presented and the applicable law and without undue influence. The United States is proud to work with you as you strive to meet these high.  I look forward to hearing about the challenges, and proposed solutions.  I also want to hear from you how the United States can assist you in continuing your efforts to strengthen the independence and accountability of the judiciary.

I wish you success in your work and a wonderful stay in beautiful Ohrid!