The IHJR hereby welcomes Tiffany Wong and Ludo Aerts, two students of the University of Leiden who will be writing a series of blog posts about the relationship between criminal courts and history, showing how the law actively consumes and produces historical narratives. Focusing on relevant cases from around the world, they will reflect on how the law plays a role in processes of reconciliation in divided societies. We hope you will enjoy some of the posts to come and we invite you to make your voices be heard and engage us on social media if you have any comments.
One of the most common responses that we’ve received when we tell people that we’re interning at the Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation is a nod of polite befuddlement, and the almost inevitable – “That’s so interesting… so what is it exactly that you do there?”
It’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer. Here in Leiden and especially in nearby the Hague, the center of international justice and international courts, the more quiet and less conventional operations of the IHJR might be overshadowed. Talking about the need for creating collective historical narratives as a form of transitional justice and reconciliation can seem too abstract and removed when compared to the more traditional notion of criminal justice in the form of court proceedings, legal procedural debates and delivered sentences. In comparison, the rationale for criminal justice is straightforward enough: it is only through the Rule of Law that the facts can be pieced together, so that we can then determine the truth of the past and punish those responsible for the crime.
Yet, justice and reconciliation is far from as simple as legal logic might suggest, and here at the IHJR, we have been given the space to critically explore and question these “given truths” that seem self-evident at first glance. To be clear, we are not opposed to international courts; we too are passionately committed to the aspirations of the law towards justice and reconciliation. At the same time, we also strive to be aware of its shortcomings.
Drawing upon the works of French philosopher Raymond Aron, journalist Philip Gourevitch commented that human rights and the rally for justice – a “grandiose and poetic enterprise where we, as a people, fight against exploiters” – is one
based on a “notion of purity”: “It’s ‘not about taking responsibility for a decision ‘in unpredicted circumstances, based on incomplete knowledge’ (…) Instead, human rights function as a refuge for utopia.”
The utopian dimension of the fight against injustice has always inspired faith and imagination in the possibility of a better world of “dignity and respect.” Yet, the danger is that, in our hubris, we assume that the utopia already exists in this world – that we have already found the “perfect solution” in our existing legal institutions, which will always be unable to fully accommodate for the contingencies and unpredictability of its own “Speech” and “Action.” This is not a cynical condemnation, but simply, as Hannah Arendt writes beautifully, the reality of “The Human Condition.”
Thus, we are idealists, but not naive, and this blog is very much a reflection of that: it aims to be an open, critical exploration of what the possibilities and limitations of international criminal courts are, without seeing within them a “refuge” for “utopia.”
So who are ‘we’, the authors of this blog? We are a duo, Tiffany Wong and Ludo Aerts, two students from very different backgrounds, both when it comes to our fields of study and our personal backgrounds:
Tiffany is currently an exchange student studying International Law in Leiden University. She previously spent most of her life in China and Taiwan before going to the US for college, where she studies Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought at Amherst College. Her international experiences helped foster her curiosity in comparative understandings of the law and differing norms of justice. She is primarily interested in examining the law from an interdisciplinary perspective, and is fascinated by the ways in which the law comes into congruence and non-congruence with its own aims of justice and truth.
Ludo on the other hand is a Dutch master’s student of Colonial and Global History at Leiden University, the Netherlands. Being born and raised in the Netherlands, he grew up in a very standard Dutch household, but this didn’t stop him from understanding that the world is much larger than The Netherlands or even Europe. His focus lies on investigating and questioning the uses and abuses of history in our modern day societies. He raises questions such as: How, and why, do people in the present choose to strategically use history in their daily lives? Or why do they tend to avoid it in other situations? Where do narratives and memory end and history begin?
We believe that a synthesis of our different disciplinary approaches will allow for a more nuanced understanding of the sometimes contradictory, yet mutually generative relationship between the law and history.
What exactly is the relationship between justice and history? This question is at the center of our exploration. It’s a question open to multiple interpretations and how one answers it is based heavily on one’s personal beliefs and ideas. For us the judicial system is both a consumer of history and a creator of history and can therefore have a great impact on the, often very much divided, societies involved.
For us law thus has a double relationship with history. Law as a consumer of history comes down to the point that legal claims cannot be made without going back in time. Without a proper examination of the past ‘right’ can never be separated from ‘wrong’. Judges need to know what happened in a specific case at a specific place at a specific moment in time to be able to make a fair judgment. In this way they ‘consume’ the past.
At the same time legal systems are also creators of history. Because the goal of courts is to separate right from wrong, they will therefore also validate one story of what has happened over others. The acceptance and validation of one story of history by a judge gives that version a different status than the story of what has happened by the person proven wrong by the judge. This validation of one version of history over another can, as we will show, have a major influence on the day to day realities of the communities whose history has been judged.
This double relationship between the concepts of history and justice and its consequences for the communities involved will be the main lens through which we will analyze the different cases in our blog.
The mission of this series of blog posts is twofold. Firstly, we take a non-legal approach to international trials, by trying to present to you how historical narratives are used, abused, neglected, and created in international criminal trials. We will also look at how the ‘history’ put forward by these courts influence processes of reconciliation and mutual understanding on a grassroots level.
We will focus mainly on the current international criminal trials taking place in the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and the International Criminal Court. In particular, we will be covering the following cases:
- Case of Ayyash (STL-11-01)
- Contempt case against Al Jadeed TV and Ms Khayat (STL-14-05)
- ICC Gbagbo/Blé Goudé status conference
Our blog posts will focus on courtroom observations of open sessions, along with insights gleaned from relevant lectures and academic sources.
The second part of the mission of this blog is to inspire you to think, question and perhaps even rethink your own assumptions about the relationship in everyday practice between such abstract concepts as history, justice and reconciliation. We are hardly experts, and we too will struggle with the complicated and intertwined linkages of these concepts in practice, but we invite you to struggle with us in these coming weeks.
This blog will therefore act as a place for our, and hopefully also your own, open exploration of the broader issues that we are ultimately wrestling with: What is the best way to render justice and reconciliation in societies torn apart by strife and atrocities? What are the things we might hope for through legal institutions, and where might we go from here?
Gourevitch, Philip. “Mass Murder Relies on People Like Us: An Interview With Thierry Cruvellier.” The New Yorker. N.p., 15 May 2014. Web. 14 Apr. 2015.
Moyn, Samuel. The last utopia. Harvard University Press, 2010.
Arendt, Hannah. The human condition. University of Chicago Press, 2013