2017 Safety, Security and International Affairs

Jon R. Smibert

Helped Albania revise its constitution and reform its criminal justice system to rid the country of decades of corruption and organized crime, and set a path for this strategic U.S. ally to gain membership in the European Union

The United States has great military power but often uses diplomacy and provides various types of assistance to spread democratic values and secure the rule of law in nations seeking to overcome a history of dictatorship and corruption.

“When we work to strengthen our friends and allies, we expand the circle of security around the United States,” said David Muniz, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Albania.

The strength Muniz has in mind is the work of Jon Smibert, assigned by the Justice Department to work in Albania with diplomats and Albanian officials involved in helping craft a new set of criminal justice laws for the former communist country. This fledgling European democracy, now an ally of the U.S., has a justice system that has been rife with corruption and influenced by organized crime.

In the past three and a half years, Smibert has rewritten roughly one-third of Albania’s constitution, negotiated with its Parliament to pass justice-reform amendments and faced down threats of physical harm.

“A lot of Albanians consider him a hero. The Albanian prime minister has called this ‘the most important reform since the fall of communism,’ ” said Donald Lu, U.S. ambassador to Albania. “Jon Smibert has a real passion for what he does, not only for representing the U.S., but in making Albania better.”

“He is highly respected and an honest broker,” Muniz said. “He was able to persuade legislators who had no interest in voting for this reform to do so unanimously.”

The massive overhaul of the judicial system strengthens Albania’s chances of becoming a member of the European Union, which has insisted on a reliable rule of law before beginning the admission process.

It also strengthens democracy in a European country that is friendly to the United States at a time when anti-American rhetoric is rising in Europe. In addition, a stable rule of law in Albania contributes significantly to the security, business and social relationships with the United States. 

Smibert’s mission to reform the judicial system was not easy. More than half the judges in Albania admitted they were influenced by politicians and organized crime. The courts were known to be corrupt, and shady judges and prosecutors were able to act with impunity.

“The problem was well-defined, but there weren’t any solutions,” Smibert said.

To get started, Smibert spent his first six months working with Albanian and European Union counterparts to produce a 400-page document outlining the problems with the existing judicial system and proposing a reform strategy, which is needed to support Albania’s application for admission to the EU.

“The effort is unprecedented, not only in the region but around the world,” said Peter D’Amico, chief of the political and economic section at the U.S. Embassy in Albania. “It has required an incredible amount of creative thinking and attention to detail to ensure the reforms meet European standards and integrate seamlessly with the existing Albanian constitution.”

Among the anti-corruption aspects of the code are independent bodies to vet all the judges and staff and to prosecute and investigate corruption and organized crime. The agency for the latter is modeled on the FBI.

The changes did not go unnoticed, and it was known that certain elements within Albania could turn to violence to protect the status quo.

“There are people who are making millions of dollars illegally who will no longer benefit from the old system,” said D’Amico.

Smibert had to have his security increased dramatically, but he forged forward.

“We ask people to do heroic things in rhetoric all the time, so once we’re in it, we can’t just back down,” Smibert said.

When it came time for the Albanian Parliament to act on revising the constitution, the vote was televised. One by one, 58 amendments passed unanimously.

“He has a lot of knowledge of how things function in Albania, which added to his effectiveness,” D’Amico said. “He has an amazing ability to stay focused on strategic goals, be calm, patient and work through the multitude of issues involved in something this complex.”

Smibert started his career in the 1990s as a lawyer with the Justice Department, focusing on antitrust and white collar crime. In 2006, he began the first of two tours of duty in Kosovo, where he wrote its criminal procedure code and assisted in judicial reform. By the time that tour ended in 2014, the Kosovo government had honored him for his work.

He was posted to Albania in 2014, where he began to tackle a legal reform effort that had been in discussion for years, but had made little progress. Smibert is now helping Albanians implement the new constitution and develop legal strategies as opponents challenge some key elements.

“There’s a lot of wisdom with Jon,” said Gjon Juncaj, the anti-corruption resident legal advisor at the U.S. Embassy in Albania. “He understands that a strong judiciary is a filter for a strong democracy.”