Kevin Jon Heller is a professor in Criminal Law at the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies.
“Justice for me means peace much more than it means justice. I certainly have no problem with holding individuals accountable for international crimes but to me, that’s an end in itself, but primarily it’s a means to an end. To me, international criminal justice is important in so far as it in some way promotes peace and stability in regions that have been torn apart by conflict. Perhaps I’m skeptical of how much of a role prosecutions play in that regard, but I still think that has to be the goal. That it’s not just the fight against impunity for the fight against impunity’s sake.
“My role has changed a lot over the years. I’ve been a professor for ten years now, and I think a decade ago I was much more committed to international prosecutions and international tribunals. I’m not opposed to them, but I’ve really tried to step back and have more of a macro understanding of the role that international criminal law plays. So on the one hand, I’ve tried to deal with the larger issues in international criminal law about how we understand complementarity, what are the nature of international crimes, but I’ve also in some ways tried to diversify beyond just prosecutions and really look, in particular, at international humanitarian law and the intersection between international humanitarian law and international human rights law.
“I think trials are sexy but they’re not necessarily more important than those on-the-ground concerns. I hope I can bring to my teaching that larger context and not just that very myopic focus of who is being prosecuted, at what tribunal and for what crimes. That’s not enough to understand international criminal justice in its relation to the larger…
“I have a very minimalist conception of what international criminal law can do. One of my biggest problems with international criminal law, and why I often derogatorily refer to international criminal law cultists, is we fray criminal prosecution with so many goals that it can’t possibly achieve. I think that trials can promote peace but they are not peace in itself. There is no magic relationship between prosecution and peace. So what I think international criminal law can do is really nothing other than identify those conflict entrepreneurs, the ones who are most responsible for the lack of peace, prosecute them and remove them from the situation. And that’s it.
“Prosecution doesn’t bring peace and reconciliation. But I think it can open a space for peace and reconciliation and say ‘okay, we’ve gotten rid of the bad guys. We’ve taken the Taylor, out of the situation. We’ve taken that Karadzic, Mladic, Milosevic, out of the situation. Now it’s up to you to figure out how to bring about peace and reconciliation.’ And so I think that is the most the ICC can do.
“I think people who support international criminal law are always trying to do too much. We deter. We bring about retributive justice. We create a documentary record. We bring closure to the victims. We create peace and reconciliation. It’s like international criminal law has this magic power to heal all that it touches, and it just doesn’t do that.
“If you can’t figure out what you’re actually trying to do with a mechanism or an international criminal tribunal, how do you design a tribunal? How do you decide which cases it prosecutes? So I think a lot of the schizophrenia that we see, particularly at a court like the ICC that has such broad jurisdiction, is reflective of that at any one time. Any particular goal can be ascendant and all the other ones receding, and then it’ll change and the prosecutor will go off in a different direction. And I think that kind of internal fragmentation of the work of the ICC has caused it a lot of trouble. And there’s obviously other things to say about the Court, but I think that’s a really fundamental problem that we’ve never solved.
“Obviously, who you chose to prosecute and sentence is important. But the idea that we should be choosing in order to deter, or we should be choosing because we think that’s going to bring peace and reconciliation, or because the victims are particularly affected – I don’t think those are sound criteria to use to decide what to do.”
(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.