Much ink has been spilt on the oft-difficult and dicey process of bringing wanted perpetrators to justice. Less attention has been paid to what happens after people are convicted by international criminal tribunals and have to pay their debt to humanity behind bars. In an effort to remedy that, Barbora Hola, an Associate Professor at the Department of Criminal Law and Criminology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and a colleague carried out an extensive research project to look into how such convicted persons are rehabilitated, if at all.
“Poorly”, it turns out, is the answer. The research project, aptly called “When justice is done”, found that measures to rehabilitate those sentenced by the Yugoslavia and Rwanda Tribunals to time in prison are woefully inadequate, a finding that calls into question what outcomes the international criminal justice system is looking for when it sends people guilty of grave crimes to prison.
Hola recently elaborated on the research project while giving a presentation at HAGUE TALKS, a platform for new ideas on peace and justice. The researchers found that prison officials tasked with running the facilities where some high-level perpetrators were sent were not sufficiently trained on how to handle them. According to Hola, here’s what one prison director said when asked about the rehabilitation program at the prison where Zoran Vuković, a Bosnian Serb convicted of rape and war crimes at ICTY, was subjected to:
“I don’t think we talked about the specific crimes. It felt unpleasant. It was so terrible. I felt I couldn’t ask him in a way to protect myself. We perhaps protected ourselves. It was so strange to us. Such terrible things had been done. It was unusual to have criminals who had committed such violence. For normal crimes, we have programs. Programs like on breaking drug abuse or breaking violence. Many prisoners go to these programs. They talk in group sessions or individually about the crimes. But what competence do we have to deal with them? We are only simple prison officers. We are not educated in these matters.”
Hola says the quote from the prison director is “quite telling.” It’s a testament to how prison administrators in Europe and Africa are largely left to their own devices once people convicted by international tribunals are sent to their facilities.
It gets worse. According to the criterion used by the tribunal president, prisoners don’t even have to show any feelings of remorse or contrition before they are eligible for early release.
“If one is never asked to reflect on what he did then is considered rehabilitated and early-released even if still in denial then I think there is something wrong with the system,” Hola asserts.
What’s the danger in all this, you might ask? Well, Hola addressed that too:
“Especially given the fact that the crimes the tribunals are dealing with are often ideologically and politically motivated and the perpetrators are the ones who steered others to commit atrocities. After they are released, some of them go back to their societies and are celebrated as war heroes. They are considered symbols of their own societies victimisation.”
You can watch Hola’s full talk below. Her presentation is a must-see for anyone interested in what happens when the international criminal justice system finds people guilty.