At a time when most lawyers are just making partner in their firms, Greg Gisvold is dodging land mines to promote the rule of law in war-ravaged Kosovo.
The 34-year-old Minneapolis attorney is leading an American Bar Association team that wants nothing less than to establish an independent, multi- ethnic Kosovar judiciary, replete with a new concept in the Balkan territory: defense lawyers. “We basically have to show them what it means to be lawyers in a democratic society,” says Gisvold. “In the West, we think the law is a fundamentally good thing, even if it doesn’t always do the right thing. In Kosovo, no one will trust the rule of law until they see what it can do. My role is to see that trust get built.”
The challenge seems overwhelming. In the wake of NATO’s 1999 bombing, Kosovo was literally lawless: The fleeing Serbs burned so many law books that the only place U.N. officials could find valid copies of some Kosovo statutes was in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The United Nations, which now runs Kosovo as a protectorate, has appointed 417 judges–85 percent from the Albanian Muslim majority, the rest from the once-dominant, now-embattled Serbian population. Gisvold’s group teaches these new judges to apply the law neutrally–while ignoring fears of retribution.
Gisvold is a do-gooder, but not a naive one. The child of political activists, he grew up in an ethnically diverse household: His Norwegian-Finnish parents adopted four multi- racial children to go with their two biological ones (Greg is the oldest). The family moved into a ramshackle seven-bedroom house in a Portland, Oregon, neighborhood just as most of the white families were fleeing; Gisvold never went to a majority-white school until he attended college. His father, a business lawyer, helped shape Portland’s smart-growth regional development plan as well as developing low-income housing; he and Greg’s mother, Susan, also helped create the first parent-run schools in Portland’s nonwhite neighborhoods. “My parents were constantly busy, but they involved us in all their volunteer work,” Gisvold recalls. “If I valued public service work, I had to do it, because I could never use the excuse that I had too full a life.”
His parents were also committed internationalists, taking their brood to Europe for month-long camping trips and bringing foreign exchange students through their home every year. Gisvold, always good with languages, found little work with his Russian literature degree, so he took a job as a paralegal with a major New York law firm. His parents were convinced the firm’s hotshot mentality and crushing hours would steer Gisvold from the law, but instead he stumbled on a group of partners doing a pro bono death penalty appeal. The defendant had allegedly shot a man five times, yet had six bullets remaining in his six-shooter. “It was more satisfying than the business deals,” Gisvold says. “I got a real life lesson in what my parents had always done. I decided to go to law school right there.”
Gisvold attended the University of Minnesota to be near the Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis. He vowed after graduation to do one human rights effort per year while building a conventional legal practice. After law school, he cut his teeth in the Balkans organizing human rights reports and monitoring Bosnia’s fledgling judiciary. He later managed a team of volunteer American lawyers who interviewed the country’s first wave of Albanian refugees. It was one of the few times that the U.S. State Department had contracted with professional, nongovernmental personnel to debrief refugees. “I was the guy whose job it was to keep the lawyers’ eye on the ball. These guys were top-notch defense lawyers, expert at getting valid information, but we had to train them how to talk to war crime victims,” says Gisvold. “You couldn’t grill them; you had to be nice. You couldn’t make the thumb-forefinger OK sign because that was a Serb victory symbol.”
Scott Carlson, Gisvold’s boss with the ABA’s Central and East European Law Initiative (CEELI), says Gisvold’s leadership was critical because the group produced a wealth of well-organized information, allowing fellow activists like Physicians for Human Rights to more quickly identify and help victims of torture. Still, Gisvold says he has a lot to learn.
“I wasn’t a major leaguer in Bosnia,” he says, “but I’ve seen the result of what a coordinated human rights office can do. Bosnia is a much more stable place than it was, and I was a seed, or part of a seed, for that. I want to apply those principles in Kosovo.”