For someone who has considered himself a student of human rights for the past several years, I saw a poetic justice when I observed a small and soft-spoken woman from Northern Ireland preside over the Charles Taylor trial in the Special Court of Sierra Leone. Here was a man accused of some of the most heinous acts that humanity can fathom, from targeting young girls to be abducted into the armed factions and then forced to live in brutal sexual slavery for years, to forcing his soldiers to eat their enemies. There was hope in this image that evidence would be weighed, violations punished, and justice served.
With the Taylor trial of the Special Court of Sierra Leone, the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, and the appeals chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, The Hague is often considered the world capital of international justice. There was little question for me that I should take the opportunity of the Mitchell Scholarship to visit this historic city.
Sitting in the Grand Chamber of the International Court of Justice, I thought back to an Irish moot court competition I participated in a month earlier that attempted to replicate the ICJ. While I left the competition with the unfulfilled sense that our team gave it our best shot, the states that leave this great hall will have won or lost an argument of extreme importance. Nonetheless, the exercise reveals a commitment to peace and the international community has avoided a more historic dispute mechanism between states—war.
But as I thought of all the famous cases that were or would be decided within this room, I could not help but find myself disappointed. Many of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups would never have access to these institutions to protect their basic rights. As I took in the history, I thought of the millions of vulnerable people in Darfur who are suffering what many are calling a second wave of incredible violence. These victims and many other oppressed people across the globe could not find recourse within this chamber that admits only consenting state claims. I found myself thinking through several of the conflicts over the last half century that erupted in part from the inability of a group to access justice, from Northern Ireland to Darfur.
Across the town there is, potentially, a court where victims from Darfur may find a voice in the international arena. The International Criminal Court was created precisely to prosecute certain gross violations and a couple years ago the UN Security Council referred the situation in Darfur to the , enabling it to exercise its jurisdiction. However, to date, it has issued only two arrest warrants for individuals and in the face of Sudanese non-compliance, the court will unlikely be able to reach Darfur in the near future.
Sitting in the trial chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the limitations of criminal prosecution become evident. The tribunal was established in 1991 and the trial I observed, against Ante Gotovina, was dealing with charges from 1995. As one of the judges later observed, criminal prosecution has been unable to stop the violence in the region.
Nevertheless, back in Ireland, as the tenth anniversary of the signing of the Belfast Agreement approaches, I am filled with optimism that the end of conflict is not unattainable.