Thijs Bouwknegt of the Netherlands Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies

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Thursday, July 2, 2015 - 13:22

Thijs Bouwknegt is a Ph.D. researcher at the Netherlands Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies (NIOD). He previously spent time at the ICTR and the ICC. He was also a trial monitor for RNW.

"I guess we’re talking about justice after mass crimes: genocides, crimes against humanity and war crimes. From a bird’s eye perspective, justice is something which is being fought for, and people are trying to bring it about after these events. I think it is much more an ambitious experiment than something which actually materialises. So justice, as practiced now by international courts and tribunals, has a kind of ideological background, a humanitarianist background and perhaps also a cosmopolitarian drive behind it.

"The people who work in this field are usually from Western countries. They share the same human rights dogmatism, with all the lofty ideas which come with that - truth, reconciliation, accountability, equal rights and justice for all. But when it comes down to doing actual justice, legally, that is where the main challenges are.

"My work is about fact-finding, and this is one of the trickiest things when you work with these crimes. If you look at the African situations, for example, there is a crying lack of documentary evidence. So the trick is to find witnesses who are able to recollect horrendous events that often took place years before. They are asked to testify in such a way that satisfies judges ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that the accused in front of them is guilty – or not. I think that has been, and still is, the most difficult part of international criminal justice. That is for several different reasons. First of all, it usually comes in very late. If you look at the ICTR, the first investigators came to Rwanda almost two years after the events.

"Another thing is that trials take a painstakingly long time. The longest trial – against six accused persons from Butare - in the history of the ICTR started in 2001. The Appeals judgment is only expected at the end of this year. So that is 15 years of waiting for justice, 21 years after the genocide. It is the same thing at the ICC, when Thomas Lubanga was prosecuted. His crimes were committed from mid-2002 to the beginning of 2003, and his appeals judgment only came out last year. By that time, people had already forgotten about Lubanga. In his place came new war criminals in Congo.

"Looking at it from a different perspective, and that is the perspective of for whom you do it, or whom you claim to be doing it for: is it justice done for everyone, for the international community, for victims, for survivors, for next generations? In that sense, justice falls short. When it comes to expectations, international justice is basically overpromised and underdelivered. It is because the people who want to bring justice simply want to do too much. They want to establish truth, reconciliation and peace in countries where they have never been before. And they will have to do so within the boundaries of their legal mandates.

"I started to get interested in the trials in Rwanda because of my studies on genocide. But it is also a bit of a personal story. In 2003, I was traveling through Ghana. At the time, there were peace talks about Liberia, and Charles Taylor actually came to Accra for a peace conference. Everyone was surprised because the SCSL had out of the blue issued an arrest warrant for him. At the time, I was meeting with Liberian refugees, and they weren’t expecting it to happen either. Suddenly, there was international justice. From that point on, I started to follow all the cases, including at the ICTY, which was close to home. I took up a job at the ICTR when I was studying non-Western history because I needed access to the archives. I was researching questions about the uses and abuses of history. Questions of ethnicity in Rwanda and how it was it was manipulated in the propaganda that was broadcast in the run-up to the genocide. After I graduated, I became a researcher on Sierra Leone and Liberia for Amnesty International, and they asked me to monitor the trials. So I was sent to Sierra Leone and The Hague, particularly monitoring the Taylor trial. In between, I worked a couple of months at the ICC, doing background research on Uganda at the time.

"A very remarkable time was in 2011, during the delivery of the Butare trial judgement in Arusha. This is the longest trial in the history of international criminal law. The public gallery was filled with court staff, and there was no place for me to sit because I was late. Then one of the judges passed by and said why don’t you just sit in the courtroom at the witness table to observe from there. So I was sitting there, listening to the judgment being read out. But you hear what is being said in the courtroom when the curtains are closed. You hear the conversations that the convicts have with prison guards guarding them during the hearing. Some of them had spent 14 years with them. One of them was a woman, Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, and the guards were referring to her as “Mama”. So here you had a person who was, first of all, suspected of the most horrible crime imaginable, then convicted for genocide, and you had the guards who have a really intense bonding with such a person. I found this really an uncomfortable observation.

"Another time was at the delivery of the judgment in the Charles Taylor case, after the reading by the three trial judges. There was an alternate judge – Malick Sow - who had sat through the whole proceedings and deliberations. He basically stood up and started to air his views on the trial. He started saying that nothing has been proven beyond any reasonable doubt and that he was afraid that this whole International Justice was heading towards disaster. But then his microphone was cut off, the curtains closed, and his observations never found their way to the trial records. It was deleted from the transcripts. So, in a way, you found a bit of censorship as well. This is a highly interesting aspect of these trials because nobody hears about this. I guess the international justice enterprise needs to be more transparent.

"If we want it or not, it is here to stay, either in the form of the ICC or newly created ‘hybrids’. Yet, despite its pitfalls, controversies and often tiring proceedings, this field continues to intrigue me. International Justice basically has everything. History because it deals with crimes committed in the past. Anthropology because it deals with different cultures. Politics because the crimes were political. But you also deal with questions of psychology. It a fascinating field that really combines everything, but we should continue to study it and report on it dispassionately and critically."

(Photo: Niklas Jakobsson/Justice Hub)

My Justice highlights the stories of individuals who work in the field of international justice or who have been affected by it and asks what does justice mean to them. 

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