The 21st century way to professionalise international justice investigations

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Thursday, December 7, 2017 - 07:31

By Brian Obara

Justice Rapid Response (JRR) works just as advertised. When there is an atrocity committed in a far-flung part of the world and experts are needed to investigate it, JRR has the capacity to quickly assemble a team (ideally) made of local experts to collect and preserve evidence for use in future legal action against the perpetrator(s). You can think of JRR as the international justice system’s answer to Marvel’s Avengers. Minus the vigilante justice, of course.

When he recently sat down for an interview with Justice Hub, JRR’s Executive Director Andras Vamos-Goldman told us the organisation’s emphasis on mounting a “rapid response” to globals acts of impunity is born out of the fast pace of the times we live in:

 “The 21st century works very differently. It requires a much faster reaction time because everything is faster in the 21st century so we are there to try to make the work of institutions including the work the ICC, the UN, and regional bodies faster. Not just faster but also more cost-effective,” said Goldman.

The full text of our interview with the JRR’s Executive Director is below:  

Justice Hub: Could you give us a thumbnail history of JRR? When was the light bulb moment?

Andras Vamos-Goldman: I don't think it will come as a surprise to you to hear that the international community’s approach over the last number of decades to have international criminal justice and human rights play a positive and effective role in ending the many recurring cycles of violence around the world has not been effective enough, and there continue to be new atrocities.  If it had been effective, we would not be having so many recurring cycles of violence around the world. Until we improve our approach, we should not expect improved results.

The “light bulb moment” for JRR happened after the coming into force of the Rome Statute. There had been a revival in not just interest in, but also belief in the possible success of international justice. We had set up a global international criminal justice infrastructure. We had a number of different ways of addressing this issue through the ICC, ad-hoc tribunals, truth and reconciliation commissions, national prosecutions and a variety of other transitional justice methods. But a number of us working in this area asked ourselves this question: Was all this going to provide the result promised by politicians and heads of international organisations? Will there be an end to impunity for the greatest crimes known to humanity?

Many of us felt that the answer to this was “no”. There were a lot of gaps that still needed to be filled in order to make this happen. One of the most important gaps was getting the investigation of international crimes right. If the investigation of international crimes and human rights violations is not done as professionally and promptly as possible, if it is not done by people who have not only the background and the expertise in international frameworks and conditions, if the investigators don’t understand the cultural sensitivities and context in which these crimes occurred, then the investigations of these crimes are always going to be less than as good as they can be.

Creating JRR was a process that we started in 2003. We very consciously didn't go through the UN process where you bring the idea to the General Assembly and then you have to persuade countries to put it on as an agenda item,  then it goes to the Sixth (Legal) Committee, where it is discussed for  a year or two, then it is sent to the International Law Commission where it is  considered  among many other ideas and it is likely 15-20 years before it hopefully goes back to the Sixth Committee with recommendations, then to be referred up to the General Assembly. That for us was too long a process. We decided instead we would try to start a process parallel to the established international institution system. Parallel, but complementing. Always there to help and make it work. That’s how it happened.

JRR puts a premium on how evidence of grave crimes is gathered. Why is that?

Andras Vamos-Goldman: There are two important reasons why this is necessary. First, because a proper investigation is the foundation of accountability. If you don't get that right, everything else that you build on top of that, all the money that you spend on institutions, laws and support mechanisms are going to be on a shaky foundation and are not going to support credible accountability.

Salina, Ikhlas and Ivana, three Yazidi women interviewed by investigators on the JRR-UN Women roster in connection to crimes committed by ISIS against members of the minority Yazidi community in Iraq. 

Secondly, the even more important reason is that bringing justice to populations affected by atrocity crimes and human rights violations usually through conflict is certainly, from my point view, the only known effective way of re-inserting belief in the rule of law into those populations. If they see that those bearing responsibility are being brought to justice, whether it's through the international criminal justice system or via truth and reconciliation, doesn't matter. If there is accountability and it’s based on real professional fact-finding, collection and presentation of facts and not on some political process that pretends to do it or some process done by people not equipped to find the facts, then at least we have an opportunity to persuade them to believe in the rule of law and not to retaliate or continue the cycle of violence.  

On one of JRR’s promotional videos, you say that the organisation currently has "more than 550 experts on its roster." What profile do the people on the roster have?

Andras Vamos-Goldman: I have to say that video is more than a year old now and we currently have over 650 experts. We have 50 professional categories of expertise covering everything you can think of that can be useful in an investigation of a mass atrocity, from policemen and women to crime scene investigators. We have 14 categories of forensic experts, including anthropologists, pathologists and doctors working in various kinds of specialities. The roster also includes forensic handwriting experts, visual image analysts and audiovisual analysts. We also have various kinds of witness protection experts, depending on the kinds of crime and the profile of the victim.

Here let me add also that probably the most important part of our roster is that it is global. We design our recruitment and onboarding programs to make sure that we are able to have as many languages, cultures and legal systems as possible covered. We strive to ensure that the right expert with the right background and the right cultural affinity is available. It is very important for us that the experts come from the area where the crimes may have happened.

43% of the experts on the JRR roster are from the global south and more than 54% are women. It is remarkable how it’s possible when you really put your mind to it to make sure you have a balanced roster. That has enabled us to do a lot of work. We've been operational since October of 2009. We have more than 133 missions in which we have assisted investigations by providing experts to assist the investigators.  

Justice Hub: How many emergencies have you responded to since JRR was set up?

Andras Vamos-Goldman: To date, 133.

Justice Hub: Which of the emergencies that JRR has responded to stands out for you?

Andras Vamos-Goldman: The one I would pick maybe for the speed of response and effectiveness was in Mali in December of 2013.  A mass grave had been discovered which some thought contained the bodies of soldiers who had been sent out to arrest General Amadou Sanogo at the time of the coup and had disappeared. Because the Malian authorities didn't have the expertise to do the exhumation and identification of the bodies or determine the cause of death, they had turned to the US government for help.

The US government then needed to deploy French-speaking forensic pathologists so they turned to us because our name was out there. The call to us came on December 3rd. On the 22nd December, the team that we had assembled and sent to Mali finished their work and went home for Christmas. The team did the exhumation and the identification of the bodies and determination of the cause of death. They also took DNA samples, not just from the bodies but also from the relatives so that DNA comparisons could be made.  That's how quickly we can work. Equally importantly, while our professionals provided their expertise, while the ownership of the accountability process remained in the hands of national authorities.

Since then we have been providing support to Mali under our Complementarity Program. This is complementarity as envisioned under the Rome Statute. This is designed to support a country which is willing but not fully able to conduct investigations and prosecutions. Our Complementarity Program is designed to provide experts who mentor local partners, not take over from them, not do their work for them but to enable national ownership to remain. By working with them, these international experts show the local partners how to do this over a longer-term basis. We find mentoring to be far superior to training courses in making sure that information that is passed remains and is absorbed and is then used. That’s why we use mentoring under our Complementarity Program. 

Regarding JRR’s effectiveness, one of the things we do is to provide surge capacity to ongoing efforts by those that have jurisdiction to make sure that their investigations and prosecutions are as effective as possible. For example, we provide surge capacity to the ICC. In the Bosco Ntaganda case, for example, we were able to provide experts to help that investigation, especially sexual and gender-based violence expertise. The SGBV charges were unanimously confirmed by the Pre-Trial Chamber of the ICC so that was good. 

Justice Hub: Is the fact that JRR exists a statement on the ICC’s effectiveness in gathering evidence of mass crimes? 

Andras Vamos-Goldman: We were not meant to replace international institutions by any means. We were from the very beginning designed to complement and augment the work of international institutions. But to be very frank, every international institution we have now is either been built or designed on a model that was thought of in the 1950s. The UN was designed in the 1950s, and all of our structures even those that came later are designed on the same model, and it’s a bureaucratic institutional model.

The 21st century works very differently. It requires a much faster reaction time because everything is faster in the 21st century so we are there to try to make the work of institutions including the work the ICC, the UN, and regional bodies faster. Not just faster but also more cost-effective. Having large a staff waiting around to see if there's going to be an investigation that fits their expertise either leads to the wrong people being used just because they are there or those institutions having to go through a long bureaucratic process of trying to fill the positions in situations where they discover they don't have the right person. In this way, a lot of time is lost.

JRR is there to provide cost-effective search capacity support for these institutions. They don't need as large a staff as before and that they can find the exact expertise they are looking for and only for the time that they need them so that the cost to them is greatly reduced. That's why we are there. We are not going to change the way international institutions are now, even if we wanted to there is no way to do it. The only way to improve how they work is by providing services as a partner organisation to help them improve their effectiveness and cost efficiency.

Justice Hub: It’s a turbulent time for the human rights community. The liberal order that gave primacy to human rights issues is under threat. How is JRR coping in this new climate?

Andras Vamos-Goldman: I'm not sure that I would give you a different answer from what I just gave you. I am not sure that we've ever had primacy of human rights and so I don't think that’s under threat. I think for the last couple of decades maybe from the end of the cold war there has been a lot of talk about the importance of human rights and some steps to fulfilling some parts of that promise but I don't think that they were ever made our primary concern; so I don't think they have ever had primacy.

I do agree with you in the sense that we've never been as under threat as we are at present because as other issues become critical, priorities shift. For example, the economic crisis that started in 2008, and started to put a squeeze on everything.  From the perspective of JRR as a public-private partnership that relies on voluntary contributions from States and philanthropic institutions, we have seen a contraction in funding. We have seen it’s always easier for everybody to fund things that are not politically contentious: health care, poverty eradication, clean water, children's education, these are things that are not so contentious. But human rights and international justice always carry a worry for the donor that there are politics involved and somebody who may have been responsible or alleged to be responsible for human rights violations or international crimes is also somebody else’s friend.

JRR works because we were designed by states and designed to work within the framework of international law, we do work with international institutions and the international system to make it work better. We do not do flashy things that may look good in the media today but may not result in information gathering that will stand out when there is some accountability process years from now. Because we are not flashy, we do not attract easy support so yes I would say it's a difficult climate and we find it as hard as everybody.

Justice Hub: What would you say has been JRR’s biggest success story in the years it has been in existence? 

Andras Vamos-Goldman: When the Extraordinary African Chambers were being set up to try [former Chadian dictator] Hissène Habré, we were contacted very early by the Senegalese authorities who were setting this up for expert support and we provided a number of experts. Because the life of an investigation and prosecution requires different expertise along the way, the beauty of having something like JRR support you is you get the expert that you need when you need them. You do not need to keep them when you no longer need them.

One example, most probably the primary example, is that at some point in the investigation it became apparent that some of the documents acquired had handwriting on the margins and it was believed to be that of Habré. Certain things he had written on the margins were very important in the view of the people investigating. JRR was asked for a forensic handwriting expert which we provided and he was able to examine the documents, make his recommendations and then when the issue came to court he came to testify in person so that his evidence could be brought in. It was one of the key elements that supported the court's decision.

Justice Hub: What has been the biggest challenge JRR has faced as it tries to fulfil its mission? 

Andras Vamos-Goldman: What we are trying to do is tantamount to systems-change. We are trying to get a system—the international criminal justice system—that is built on all these old 1950s institutions and therefore moves the way the world moved in the 1950s to change and try to pick up its pace to match the demands of the 21st century. It’s not easy to make a system change – it takes more than just having the tools that the institutions may need.  It’s basically convincing a system that has been operating over and over again the same way to do it slightly differently.

For example, one of the ways that most international institutions deal with issues is through training. The catch-all solution to everything is, well, let’s provide training. But training that is provided directly to institutions for a few days doesn’t pass information in a sustained way, a way that can make that system change.

JRR mentors local experts differently. People always learn more when you have more time and personalise it. JRR provides a peer to peer experience. You learn by working alongside someone, working on real issues with the mentor advising but the responsibility remaining with the local counterpart. The passing of information is that much better this way. One of the main challenges is to overcome this mindset: "well we have always done it this way and therefore that’s the only way we can do it".

Again, it is worth repeating that we at JRR work within the international system and law so that we are not going to get quick and easy results that can be publicised and that lure the support of the most available dollars and euros. We assist countries and institutions, by providing them with experts who work for them, so that they have the credit. All the while, our demand keeps rising. In 2014 we had 35 requests for JRR to support an investigation and prosecution. In 2016 that was up to 81.

Rabiaa El Garani a former police detective who is an international investigator on the JRR-UN Women roster.

Justice Hub: After each great atrocity, whether it’s the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide or the Srebrenica massacre, the world nations, collectively, always say “never again.” What do you think accounts for our inability to keep this promise? 

Andras Vamos-Goldman: Because the devil is in the detail, it’s easy to say “never again” but how to make never again happen you have to make changes. It’s what I said before: you've got institutions that don't work at the speed of the world in this century so those institutions have to be brought up to speed in order for them to be able to fulfil the promises of their leaders. We have to strengthen the ability of organisations like JRR to assist them to so the international community can live up to the promise of “never again”.

Justice Hub: What does “success” look like for JRR a decade from now?

Andras Vamos-Goldman: Our long-term vision is for every investigation of human rights and international criminal law violations to be done professionally, promptly and impartially. Whether it’s something that we’re able to assist in, whether done by international institutions (with or without JRR’s assistance), what we want to have is a standard in the international system that those investigating human rights violations and international criminal law violations have the expertise, the experience, the know-how to apply the experience and expertise under international frameworks and circumstances and the cultural, linguistic and legal affinity to the place and the people where the alleged crimes or human rights violations may have occurred so that the investigation can be the best it can be.

To use an analogy, in the domestic system, when your house is broken into and you call the authorities, you do not expect them to send the postman to do the investigation. You expect a policeman who is trained to investigate. That is exactly what we are trying to achieve everywhere, not just through JRR’s assistance, but by making sure that it is understood that we need to have that standard if we are going to reach the place where the promises that are made to survivors of atrocities, the never again promises are actually going to be true. 

Photos: Hannah Dunphy/JRR and screen grabs from the JRR/UN Women short documentary film "Evidence of Hope"

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