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‘International’ justice and the distance between The Hague and Africa

July 13, 2012

First published at Africa Portal, July 1, 2012.


I am now in The Hague, a well-ordered and pleasant city near the coast of the North Sea. For over a century, the Dutch seat of government has also been a laboratory where diplomats and lawyers and activists have worked on the rules and institutions of international justice. A bike ride around the city takes you from the neo-gothic stone Peace Palace that hosts the International Court of Justice and the Permanent Court of Arbitration, to the drab insurance company office that became the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, and to the gleaming white towers of the International Criminal Court. I first came to The Hague seven years ago as a freelance journalist, to report on the trial of alleged perpetrators of genocidal acts in Srebrenica. My research on international criminal justice has taken me back several times since then, from reporting and research in Cambodia, Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Uganda, and elsewhere. On each visit I am struck by the incredible gulf between this calm, orderly city, and the testimonies of chaos and terror and grief that fill the courtrooms of its international tribunals.

On the one hand, the remoteness of the International Criminal Court (the focus of my current research) from the violence it investigates is a virtue. The ICC was created to provide some justice for exceptional crimes – genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity – when state governments are unable or unwilling to do so. A basic premise of the Court is that in certain circumstances, some forms of justice must come from outside a state. To make this ‘foreign’ justice legitimate, the ICC must operate according to impartial rules or accepted legal principles, and must follow the commitments made by those 121 states that have ratified the treaty that created the Court.

However, The Hague and its justice can also be too remote from victims and affected communities. To address that fear, the ICC was created with several victim-focused programs that didn’t exist for previous international tribunals, such as the post-WW2 Nuremberg tribunal or the ad hoc tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. The ICC seeks to bring information about the Court to affected communities through outreach programs, it seeks to bring victims’ concerns and voices into the Court as legal participants, and it aims to bring some direct aid to victims through assistance and reparations. My project with Africa Initiative seeks to evaluate these programs, drawing on voices within the Court and voices from violence-affected communities in Uganda and Kenya.

My research is therefore an act of translation as well as one of evaluation. Without doubt the language of justice in The Hague – spoken in English and French, rooted in legal traditions familiar to me, conducted in office buildings and embassies and Dutch cafés – is an easier one for me to understand. The real challenge for me in the next two months will be to hear perspectives on violence, justice, and peacebuilding that come from extremely different experiences and social contexts. And it’s helpful to remember that the justice that the ICC attempts to bring to distant communities is not just ‘international’ but also very ‘local’ – headquartered in a particular city on the Dutch seaside.

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