A Commitment to Justice
For Cornelia Schneider, a typical workday could involve driving three hours through the jungles of eastern Congo to attend the opening of a new courtroom to prosecute perpetrators of sexual violence, arranging gasoline for a remote police station so officers can transport a suspect to court or organizing humanitarian law training for soldiers at the front.
Schneider, who goes by Connie, has spent the last 13 months based in Goma, a city at the crossroads of the war and chaos that has ravaged eastern Congo and its neighboring countries for decades. “We’re here to assist the Congolese state,” says Schneider, F06.
Her work with the United Nations Development Programme’s Access to Justice Project is helping to patch a creaky judicial system suffering from a lack of resources and a lack of legitimacy in the eyes of many. In doing so, Schneider, 36, draws on years of experience working in other war-racked places like Afghanistan, eastern Chad and South Sudan, as well as her deep determination to improve conditions for at-risk individuals.
It’s a legacy of invaluable experience in conflict zones, and a testament of ability, tenacity and leadership. In recognition of her work, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy will honor Schneider with its inaugural Fletcher Women’s Leadership Award (FWLA) on March 7. The award, to be given annually, was established this year by the Fletcher Board of Advisors and the school’s executive leadership to honor outstanding women graduates who are making a meaningful impact in the world in the private, public and NGO sectors.
“Connie’s commitment to using her professional legal skills in service to vulnerable populations—often in extremely dangerous situations—epitomizes the spirit of the global Fletcher community,” says Elizabeth Powell, F62, chair of the FWLA committee and member of the Fletcher Board of Advisors. “She was selected unanimously not only as an outstanding example of an emerging woman leader who is helping to create positive change in the world, but also for her efforts to help prepare a new generation of women leaders.”
Before her current assignment for the U.N. in the Congo, Schneider worked for the European Union’s Police Mission in Afghanistan (EUPOL), helping to train Afghan police officers and improve coordination with prosecutors.
“How do you help a justice system to get back on its feet when it’s been neglected for so long, and professional education has been interrupted for decades; where do you even start?” she says of the complex situation she faced. Undaunted, Schneider went on to create a first-of-its kind training manual for cooperation among police and prosecutors and developed a course that successfully brought together 400 police and prosecutors from across Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. As EUPOL’s acting head of rule of law component, in 2012 she was the only female member of EUPOL’s senior management team.
During her three-year tenure in Kabul, Schneider also gave her expertise and energies to the development of the School of Leadership Afghanistan (SOLA), an organization that runs the country’s first multi-ethnic girls’ boarding school, providing education and leadership opportunities to help its students foster growth in their country. SOLA has helped 37 students from 19 provinces obtain some $6.5 million worth of competitive scholarships abroad. The organization was co-founded by another Fletcher alum, Ted Achilles, F62.
“I met Ted at a Fletcher dinner in Kabul one night, and he shared the story of 17-year-old Farahnaz, whose dreams of studying abroad were destroyed by the denial of her visa,” says Schneider. She immediately became involved in the project, writing to U.K. schools on behalf of Farahnaz, who ultimately was awarded a two-year scholarship. “You cannot meet a SOLA girl without being deeply touched by her courage, commitment, pride and enthusiasm.”
Schneider went on to serve as chair of the board of directors of SOLA from January 2012 to 2013 and was instrumental in raising the organization’s profile and securing critical funds to support Afghan women’s leadership.
A Long Path
Schneider’s career path was anything but a straight line. A graduate of University College London, Schneider worked with the multinational law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer for several years, becoming a registered solicitor with the Law Society of England and Wales in 2004. She could have opted for a lucrative career as a commercial lawyer, and she was uniquely positioned to do so as a German national and a European lawyer. But later that same year, Schneider enrolled at Fletcher, where she focused on rule of law and Southwest Asia studies.
The training she received at Fletcher went far beyond the classroom, says Schneider. She spent time teaching at a women’s college in Dar Al-Hekma, Saudi Arabia, that Professor Andrew Hess had long been involved with. In addition, she spent the summer between her two years at Fletcher working for the U.N. mission in Sudan, thanks to help from Professor Ian Johnstone, currently Fletcher’s academic dean, who is deeply involved in the U.N. and international organizations.
Schneider says everything she does these days is in many ways related directly to what she studied at Fletcher. Last year, when the U.N. Security Council authorized a U.N. intervention force to engage directly in eastern Congo, fighting the shadowy rebel group M23, she thought, “I wonder what Professor Johnstone and his students will be making of these developments.”
In the months after graduating from Fletcher, Schneider worked with different European justice and rights organizations, then spent a year with the International Committee of the Red Cross, helping to manage a base in eastern Chad and overseeing distribution of humanitarian aid there. After a short stint as public information officer for the International Criminal Court, she was hired by EUPOL, where she worked for more than three years, before moving on to her current post at the U.N.
Last summer, fighting intensified between the M23 rebels and Congolese army troops. At one point, the rebels lobbed mortar shells into Goma from a hilltop position, destroying several houses and killing several people.
“That was a particularly intense period for everyone because it directly affected the city,” she says. “It was a pertinent reminder of how violated you feel when war touches your home and your friends, and your freedom to move and to plan your future. And we must never forget that, as foreigners, we can leave at any moment, whilst this is a reality that the Congolese have had to live with for decades with nowhere to go.”
While helping to improve the Congolese justice system is the overall mission of Schneider’s work in Goma, the focus on sexual violence has been particularly acute, she says. She routinely confronts cases of horrific crimes and suffering by women and girls, who in some instances have been literally branded—like cattle— by their attackers.
In that sort of environment, amid such suffering, depredation and poverty, it’s often hard to maintain your composure, she says, and not simply despair at the idea of helping people find peace and build prosperity.
“The trick is reminding yourself that you can’t personally solve all the problems. If you go out there saying, ‘I’m going to save all the rape victims there are or completely eliminate sexual violence,’ then you’re obviously setting yourself up for disappointment and frustration,” says Schneider. “You have to set yourself discrete goals in line with the more ambitious institutional objectives, bearing in mind that reform is an ongoing process; a journey and not a destination. Sometimes, what keeps you going on an individual level is telling yourself, ‘I want to help that one person and make that one person’s life better.’”
Cornelia Schneider will be honored in a ceremony to be held at the Fletcher School’s ASEAN Auditorium on Friday, March 7, timed to coincide with International Women’s Day, which is celebrated annually throughout the world on March 8.