Learning About International Justice on the Ground—The Balkans & War Crimes (Part I)

By Belinda Cooper and Jennifer Trahan

Students of international affairs or international law can learn about the field of international justice through textbooks, films, discussions and lectures in the classroom, but an additional depth of understanding comes from traveling to the locations where crimes occurred, observing tribunals adjudicating those crimes, and meeting in the field with court officials, NGOs and victims.

Each year, we lead a group of master’s degree students from NYU’s Center for Global Affairs on a trip to The Hague, Bosnia, and Serbia to learn about war crimes prosecutions and issues surrounding international and transitional justice. We both work in the international justice field, and over the course of years have built up networks of contacts in both The Hague and the Balkans region; we are thus able to introduce students to a broad variety of actors and institutions and thereby expose them very directly to the controversies and pitfalls, as well as successes, of international and transitional justice.


While still in New York, we hold a number of class sessions that provide basic background on the wars in the former Yugoslavia and the ways in which judicial systems and societies deal with the aftermath of mass atrocity crimes. But the trip really begins in The Hague, which puts us on the doorstep of international institutions, even in the literal sense: our hotel is next door to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). That tribunal has been the focus of our Hague visit, but we also bring students to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and on occasion the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.


International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia


NYU Group at the Peace Palace

To provide some insight into the history of the movement for international justice, we spend some time at Andrew Carnegie’s imposing Peace Palace, the home of the International Court of Justice and the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Whenever possible, we sit in on trials at the ICTY and ICC; in past years, student have had the chance to view the Karadžić and Mladić trials, Haradinaj, Bemba, and others. Sitting barely feet away from accused war criminals and hearing lawyers, judges and witnesses speak brings home the drama—and sometimes the tedium—of international criminal trials.

In addition, we organize substantive meetings with a wide variety of people involved in the courtroom process: these include the various offices of the ICTY (prosecution, defense, judges, outreach, registry) and the ICC, as well as journalists covering the tribunals. Highlights of past years have included ICTY Judge Theodore Meron, ICC Judge Hans-Peter Kaul, Karadžić defense advisor Peter Robinson, SENSE news chief Mirko Klarin, and many others. Sometimes serendipity takes a hand: this year, the chief prosecutor of the ICTY, Serge Brammertz, passed our students as they waited to enter the building and began a conversation with them. At these meetings, students gain insight into the mechanisms of international justice, and profit from speaking directly to people involved every day in the nitty-gritty of preparing and carrying out trials of major war criminals.

The impression they receive is an understandably positive one of successful, if not always perfect, institutions staffed by dedicated, skilled, and often idealistic professionals. But questions about the efficacy of the tribunals on the ground in former Yugoslavia already arise in our discussions about the ICTY’s reception in the region, its outreach program, and its perceived legacy. These concerns increase in immediacy and intensity once we arrive in the region, and they become a central focus of our discussions.   (To read more, see Part II.)

Introducing Hope Elizabeth May

hope mayWe are delighted today to welcome Hope Elizabeth May as an IntLawGrrls contributor.  Hope is Professor of Philosophy at Central Michigan University, where she directs its Center for Professional and Personal Ethics. She earned her J.D. degree after first earning her Ph.D. in philosophy.   After her studies in law, she worked as a Visiting Professional in the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. 

Hope is passionate about the importance of public education to the “Peace Through Law” project, and to that end, creates innovative educational activities aimed at exposing the story and history of International Law to a broader audience than lawyers and the legal academy.  These activities include A Grotian Moment (celebrating the 10 year anniversary of the International Criminal Court), Piece of the Palace (celebrating the Centenary of the Peace Palace), and, celebrating the role of women in peacebuilding and international law: Pro Concordia Labor and The Bertha von Suttner Project. Additionally, Dr. May has developed the first study abroad course (based in Leiden and The Hague) for U.S. undergraduates that focuses solely on the International Criminal Court, the United States, and The Hague Tradition. Her deep interest in the power and importance of education about these subjects underlies her innovative educational projects on these topics.

Hope is also a member of the Board of Directors of the International Criminal Court Student Network, and is on the Council of Advisors of the Global Institute of the Prevention of Aggression.  Her latest book is Aristotle’s Ethics: Moral Development and Human Nature (Continuum 2010).

Hope’s introductory post today discusses the centenary of the Peace Palace and advocates for a paradigm shift in discourse around international justice.