human rights, ICC, international justice

The injustice of international justice

Charles Taylor Trial (Credit: BBC)

I just ran across this fascinating Time interview with Stephen Rapp, who was previously chief prosecutor for the Special Court for Sierra Leone (H/T Shelby Grossman). Rapp states:

The concern all of us had was that we were conducting justice in a comfortable courtroom with long trials and well-paid attorneys. Prisoners had single cells, and they had committed the worst crimes. A mile away in the local prison there were simply no resources. Cases can’t go forward, witnesses are lost, and people stay in detention for many years at a stretch. [If I was] to do it over, I would try to develop a court within the national system. That would be my preference. Maybe not a court that costs $30 million a year like the Special Court, but an appropriate court.

This is something I thought about while writing the post “Villains & Supervillains,” after my trip to The Hague with the ICC Student Network last year, but never fully articulated.

I understand that many of these “supervillians” – war criminals, genocidaires, leaders who have led crimes against humanity, are some of the worst perpetrators in that world. For that reason, they receive special attention, and they are given fair trials and adequate living conditions. They are allowed to represent themselves in court, and a great deal of attention is paid to their trials to ensure they are truly fair. This all makes complete sense, because their trials are, and should be, high profile and well publicized in order to draw attention to their horrific crimes and resulting punishments, and thereby contribute to ending the atmosphere of impunity worldwide. Without fair trials and without widespread publicity of these proceedings, there is no chance that the justice being done will deter future perpetrators (though the possibility of deterrence itself is arguable).

But the greater travesty and grosser injustice is the fact that we are pumping millions of dollars into international courts which have doubtful impacts, and are simultaneously completely ignoring the life-threatening conditions in the national justice systems of many developing countries. Isn’t this ironic? While war criminals are getting the royal treatment, everyday people – many of them poor – are arbitrarily detained in various African countries, often for stealing a piece of bread or for political reasons. In many African countries, torture continues to be widespread as an interrogative tool despite laws in the books prohibiting it.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), 80% of prisoners are in pre-trial detention, and there is no law criminalizing torture. In Kenya, even petty offenders must wait an average of 5 years to have their case heard. In Kampala, Uganda, many prisons are overcrowded, often at 300% of capacity. And in Nigeria, women are held alongside men in prison, often leading to rape and sexual violence. In Zimbabwe, news reports have shown emaciated inmates starving to death from lack of food, often forced to catch and eat rats to survive.

The criminal justice systems of many developing countries are in far worse conditions than that of the U.S., and are arbitrary, unfair, and life-threatening. If the international community devoted one-tenth of the attention to this issue as they do to providing fair trials to supervillains, then many more innocent lives would be saved.

As the status quo stands, a guy who is responsible for the genocide of thousands gets a lawyer of his own and a fair trial, while the poor, innocent, arbitrarily detained are tortured and starve to death without ever having access to counsel. Is this fair, or just? I don’t think so. This doesn’t mean we should pay less attention to war criminals, but that we should work harder to ensure a fair trial to those who are not.


5 thoughts on “The injustice of international justice”

  1. Nathalie says:

    Akhila you pint pointed a very interesting argument about the double standard of justice. It's true that the big profile criminals get the first class justice while many others who committed either petty crimes or as terrible crimes do not benefit from decent trial conditions.
    However, I remain optimistic on the need for international justice system. First, you should not forget that it is admirable that international courts exist to hold accountable perpetrators of the worst crimes and providing ground for a international norm saying out loud that it is not acceptable to commit crimes for any ideological reason whatsoever.
    Second, international justice remains in its learning phase. The Sierra Leone appeared to be the best solution at first, now that it is wrapping up the trials, we can learn from what went wrong and what went well. From it, we can try to set a better mechanisms to bring justice.

    Helping in improving the national justice system is probably the best solution in the long term, but probably the most difficult to implement in a decent amount of time as a proper independent judicial system requires not only well trained judges and attorneys, decent infrastructures, but also national laws guaranteeing international human rights standards and non-corrupted, transparent and fair governance. These requires a certain level of economic development and/or substantial aid.

  2. Akhila says:

    Thanks for the comment, Nathalie (sorry I'm getting to you so late). Remember that in the blog post I noted that we don't need to focus LESS on international justice but we do need to focus MORE on national justice systems. The organization I worked with last summer focused on national criminal justice reform through training public defenders, and I have found it to be a very successful model. I only wish more people and organizations and funding was going towards this very important issues. When people who have committed petty crimes like stealing bread or a bicycle are detained for years and even tortured in horrible prison conditions, the conditions are incredibly unfair and they deserve access to counsel as well.

    I definitely understand and wrote above that the focus on holding perpetrators of war crimes and genocide responsible for their actions is incredibly important, and by publicizing their trials, we are helping to send a message to end impunity and assist in deterrence of future war criminals. I am not saying that there's anything wrong with international justice or the way it's being done.

    I agree that there are so many problems nationally with regards to infrastructure and economic development as well, which are all crucial to helping improve the legal system too. However imagine if so much more funding – the millions and millions of dollars spent on international justice – if only some of it went to national justice sectors. Are you telling me that wouldn't be incredibly helpful? Even in many countries like Rwanda, Uganda, the national justice sector is capable of trying people. In Rwanda it tried thousands of genocidaires while the ICTR which has SO much funding and resources in comparison has not even tried successfully a few hundred.

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