Nation & World

Nasredeen Abdulbari: ‘Lawyers are the cement of society.’

4 min read

Nasredeen Abdulbari identifies no particular “aha!” moment when he knew what his life’s work would be.

But if you know his country’s background, it’s easy to understand why he would want to devote himself to human rights and constitutional law.

Abdulbari was born and brought up in Khartoum. His parents hail from different villages in the Sudanese province of Wadi Saleh, in the region known as Darfur, western Sudan. His grandmothers still live there. “Sudan experienced the longest civil war in Africa, and is now embroiled in a civil war in its western part, in Darfur,” he says.

“Everyone from Darfur has suffered, directly or indirectly. They’ve all lost someone, or lost something,” he adds.

His life experiences have left him feeling not downcast or dispirited, but energized with a personal vision of what a more fully developed constitutional system could do for his troubled country. “Sudan is now facing a problem — it might fall apart in three years.” And what could hold it together? “Human rights, justice, democracy, and freedoms — they are a guarantee of unity.”

Abdulbari earned his bachelor of laws degree from the University of Khartoum in 2002. Three years later, he graduated with a master’s degree in law from the same institution. While pursuing the second degree he served as a lecturer and teaching assistant in the department of international comparative law. He also served as coordinator for the legal aid clinic at the university.

Given Sudan’s history as a British colony, he considered furthering his education in the United Kingdom. But a good friend persuaded him to come to Harvard instead. He will be graduating from Harvard Law School with his LL.M. degree June 5, and the next day returning to Sudan. He will continue his teaching at the University of Khartoum, and his human rights, peace-building, and development work with the Sudan Social Development Organization (SUDO).

“Lawyers are the cement of society,” Abdulbari says, and in his vision, this is clearly ongoing work. “My personal perspective is that constitutions and lawyers are never static — they’re always dynamic.” Pace Antonin Scalia and his colleagues who adhere to the “originalist” school of legal thought, Abdulbari believes that failure to “renovate” laws and constitutions as needed has made for trouble in Africa and elsewhere.

He is prepared to acknowledge that some controversial laws — the bans, common in Islamic countries, on women traveling internationally without the permission of their male protectors — may once have been justified, given the dangers of travel. But those days are gone, and such laws should change, he says.

He also resists the argument that human rights are essentially Western ideas of which countries like Sudan must be wary for cultural reasons. “Whose culture do you want to protect?” he asks. “That of the governments? Or that of the peoples who have been oppressed, and whose real interest is in human rights?” He acknowledges that many well-meaning people are concerned about their own cultural authenticity. But often the cultural argument is cover for tyrants. And at the moment, he says, “We all need systems of government in which each person can see him- or herself.”

He doesn’t mind importing ideas, wherever they come from: “Our question is, Are they good for us? Their good is in their fairness, their ability to improve our lives, and properly determine the relationship between us and our governments.”

Asked about the argument that many states in Africa suffer from badly drawn maps that disregard natural cultural and ethnic communities, he responds, “Cultural or ethnic homogeneity is not a sine qua non of unity.” The most homogeneous country in Africa, he pointedly adds, is Somalia.