Since 2008, the Weinstein JAMS International Fellowship Program has selected accomplished individuals from around the world to study dispute resolution in the U.S. and advance its cause in their home countries.
Hicham Kantar and Lilit Yeremyan are no exception. Kantar, a former judge and prosecutor in Lebanon, and Yeremyan, a former assistant to the president of the Republic of Armenia for legal affairs and presidential initiatives, were among those selected for the 2020-21 class. Due to the pandemic, the class was not able to meet in person until the fall of 2022. They recently spoke about their experiences.
What drew you to ADR and the fellowship?
Hicham: During my work at the criminal court, I realized that mediation is often not perceived as a tool in criminal justice. It’s true that the plea-bargaining process is, in some sense, a type of mediation, but it's not really balanced. It's not fair. So, I was thinking about how to create a fair, transparent, out-of-court mechanism to help resolve criminal cases.
I had an idea to create a pilot mediation program for minor criminal cases like misdemeanors, which are more like civil cases but with criminal character. Those cases constitute probably 50% of the backlog in Lebanon’s criminal courts.
The backlog is a universal problem. There is simply more work than judges are capable of handling. In addition to alleviating the backlog, I thought mediation could potentially defuse the criminal character of these kinds of cases. Whenever you say “crime,” and you go before a judge and potentially face prison, there is a tension that you don't get when you just try to resolve the case.
Lilit: When I served as an adviser to the Minister of Justice, I was involved in the working group for drafting the strategy on legal and judicial reforms in Armenia as a way of making the country more business-friendly. One of the reasons why Armenia has struggled to attract business is the judicial system, and especially the backlog of the courts. The president at that time, Armen Sarkissian, was a proponent of ADR as a more productive and efficient way to resolve disputes. He was influenced by the experiences of countries that make up free economic zones, which feature ADR. He wanted to outline a strategy on promotion of an easier and quicker way to resolve disputes. So, to understand the best way for Armenia to proceed, I felt that I needed more knowledge, skills and better connections in the field.
How did the pandemic affect your fellowship experience?
Lilit: COVID was a setback for sure, but in a way, we were lucky. The JAMS Foundation team was very thoughtful and caring, and put on a wonderful online program for us. We joined online almost weekly for training on arbitration, mediation and negotiation. We were also lucky in another sense. Because we already had met the other Weinstein JAMS Fellows and the board members who lectured online, it didn't feel like we were meeting for the first time when we finally gathered in person. We had been friends for a long time!
In the fall of 2022, you both traveled to San Francisco with other Fellows to receive in-person training. What were the highlights?
Hicham: It was a wonderful program. We met people across the world and shared our experiences. I remember meeting, for example, a judge from Thailand—a country that has experimented with mediation for criminal cases. We had a lot to talk about. In addition, one of our fellow Fellows from South Sudan, who lives in Kenya, told me about his experience mediating between refugees and the local populations.
We also had interesting speakers come and talk about ADR experiences in the U.S. It was only a week, but it was so well planned. The interaction between us Fellows was just amazing, and some of these interactions continue today.
Lilit: One of the highlights was the trip to the Napa Valley. I knew we were going, but I didn't quite understand what it would be like. First of all, it’s a perfect place for mediation. If someone wants to understand what peace is, they should watch sunsets in the Napa Valley.
Secondly, the program was excellent. We enjoyed a mix of very intense courses and high-profile lectures from people like Judge Daniel Weinstein and Judge Rebecca Westerfield from JAMS, as well as Ambassador David Carden (Ret.), former U.S. Representative to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and member of the Board of Directors for the Weinstein International Foundation. But we also had free time for outdoor activities during breaks as well as evening events, where we could enjoy informal conversations and activities, which brought us all closer together.
What have you been up to since leaving San Francisco?
Hicham: I came to New York because I decided to use my fellowship to enter a visiting scholar’s program at Columbia University to research the topic of mediation in criminal cases. And that led to me applying for a J.S.D. program within the Columbia Law School, researching different types of justice and how we can reimagine criminal justice as a type of conflict resolution. I also work as a consultant for the World Bank on a program for the rights of sexual and gender minorities.
Lilit: During the pandemic, I began working as a justice officer with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). So, I had to divide my fellowship program into two parts. I undertook the second part in Boston, where I had the opportunity to shadow seven cases at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, at the JAMS Boson Resolution Center and The Mediation Group. I also had the opportunity to visit the JAMS New York Resolution Center.
Along with academic activities, I’m continuing my work with the UNDP. Part of that has included working to help the Ministry of Justice of Armenia create a new mediation and arbitration center.
In general, arbitration is underdeveloped in Armenia. But this center is very promising. I think one of the most important steps was including mediation. Initially, it wasn’t clear whether the center would be just focused on arbitration. Fortunately, mediation is covered because I think it could benefit businesses in Armenia more than arbitration. We’ll have to see how it goes, but I’m hopeful.
What will you take away from your experience as a Weinstein JAMS Fellow?
Hicham: I learned that conflict is fundamentally the same everywhere. Sometimes legal cases can be more advanced because economies are further along. But people and conflict are the same. It’s comforting to know that. Maybe the resources are not the same, but the concepts are the same. Also, I'm still in touch with many of the Fellows. We’ve been in touch with people who want to apply for the fellowship, so we try to guide them and discuss what could help them.
Lilit: The fellowship was an incredible, life-changing experience. And these are not just words. In other programs and scholarships that I've participated in, you create a network. But with the Weinstein JAMS Fellowship, you become a part of a family. And that's really true. Because on top of the knowledge and skills I gained during the fellowship, I also felt an emotional connection. I know that I can rely on a Weinstein JAMS Fellow in any other part of the world, whether I know the Fellow or I don't know the Fellow. I just have to use the magical words: Weinstein JAMS International Fellow.
Learn more about the Weinstein JAMS International Fellowship here.
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