‘Crossing Borders’ exhibition: A great success

The IHJR is pleased that the photo exhibition “Crossing Borders”, organized in collaboration with the Institute Français in Instanbul, has received a warm reception. Photographers Zaven from Armenia and Mesut from Turkey have artfully demonstrated the potential for cultural understanding and bridging gaps in their exhibit of the villages of Kars, Gyumri and Ani at the border of Turkey and Armenia.

At the opening of the exhibition, the French Consul General in Instanbul, Ms. Muriel Domenach gave the following speech:

“I am pleased to welcome you this evening to the opening of the exhibition “Crossing Borders”. The exhibition – as a visual dialogue between Turkish and Armenian photographers, Mr. Mesut Tufan and Mr. Zaven Khachikyan – displays a sensitive border area closed from crossings and calls for reflection on the notion of imaginary borders. […] By visiting the exhibition, you will discover the parallels and similarities between architecture, people and daily life in Kars and Gyumri but also the unparalleled archaeological heritage of Ani, situated between the two cities and totally abandoned for decades.”

[own translation]

Click here for the full speech in French.

What started out as a small-scale project turned out to be an extremely successful exhibition that has far exceeded our expectations. We would like to sincerely thank our donors for making this possible, and especially the photographers for their diligence and cooperation. The exhibition was part of our Journey Towards Understanding project, which aimed to emphasize the shared cultural heritage in the region on both sides of the border through civil society initiatives that facilitate dialogue relatable to all. The exhibition was originally held in The Hague, at which point we garnered positive attention of the target countries. We are extremely pleased that it was able to eventually take place in Turkey, where we could engage the civil society that is directly implicated in the goals of this project. Overall, this project is a truly exemplary case for building friendship across borders.

This is the last day of the exhibition. To those in Istanbul, don’t miss it and come by for a visit.

See our Facebook album for more images of the exhibit, courtesy of Mesut Tufan.

Blog post 2: The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (Pt. 1), by Tiffany Wong and Ludo Aerts



“Why do we need to learn about history? The past is behind us, we cannot change it. We should be looking towards the future – moving forward and not backwards in time!”

No doubt you have heard such a response from the people around you. Nowadays, the seductive promise of Modernism, which tells us that we are always improving, always on our way to a better, more progressive world, also tells us that history is a closed door behind us, to be left behind and forgotten.

Yet, history is far from dead – in fact, it is a force that is deeply alive and embedded in our very daily lives. Our world is flushed with the vitality of the past; the way we perceive and make sense of the events of the world, and how we subsequently conduct our lives are all deeply intertwined with the historical narratives that we choose – or don’t choose – as reference points, the islands of stability to rest upon amongst the tumultuous, unpredictable waves of life itself. The question then isn’t so much about leaving history behind, but whether or not we acknowledge its indelible presence. Or as the Spanish novelist Carlos Ruiz Zafon poignantly wrote:
“I tend to think we are what we remember, what we know. The less we remember, the less we know about ourselves, the less we are.” (Interview with Three Monkeys Online, October 2008)



This dual force of history – as one that gives meaning to the events of our lives and helps orient our actions in the present – is ever more palpable in the courtroom. To give its own judgments legitimacy the law will always rely and draw upon the authority of history. One might then expect this “truth finding” work of lawyers be very similar to that of historians.

Yet in practice, there is a huge disparity between historians and lawyers in the usage of history and the type of history created. While “historian’s history” is drawn from extensive research with primary and secondary sources, and self-consciously tries to be as impartial and objective as possible, “lawyer’s history” is inescapably “romantic” and interested in rendering a “usable past” that can impart moral instruction upon the present. [1]

Put simply, the distinctive roles of the prosecution and the defense within the courtroom determine how both deal with the pool of knowledge we call history. While prosecutors have the clear goal of making sure the accused is found guilty, the defense team attempts to counter the prosecution’s narrative such that their clients is found less culpable. Thus, both purposefully select bits and pieces of history, creating competing narratives for the same case. These narratives are then evaluated by the judge who has the ultimate say as to which narrative is most plausible, and issues the judgment based on this final “history.”



On April 9th, we saw these tensions at play in the open session of Ayyash et al. (STL-11-01) at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL). [2]

The proceedings that day involved the questioning of the prosecution’s witness Mustapha Nasser, a former journalist and advisor who had acted as a liaison between the former prime minister and Hezbollah. Nasser was a passionate, loquacious man, prone to bouts of effusive commentary and storytelling. When asked about the details of the meeting between the late Prime Minister Hariri and Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah on the topic of placing pro-Syrian political candidates on the ballot, Nasser surged past the question, excitably talking of not only Hariri’s refusal of a pro-Syrian candidate on the ballot, but also alluding to the proposal of an Armenian candidate – (“Where does the Armenian come in? Who is the Armenian?” Judge Re interjected, bewildered) – and his own proposition of placing himself on the ballot- (“But why?” Judge Re interjected once again, confused) – as a compromise candidate to alleviate the potential tension that that was rising out of Hariri and Nasrallah’s disagreement.

Sensing that the prosecution had lost control of their witness, Judge Re said to Nasser in a long-suffering, pointed way, that “[they] need[ed] to take this in bite size chunks…less narrative more question/answer. Let [Prosecutor] Mr. Cameron lead you through.” Upon which Nasser cheekily replied, “Between being brief and explaining I will have a problem – how about we can work on it together.”

Nasser’s response, though probably meant with some impudence, is illuminating because it speaks to the negotiation that takes place between witness testimonies and legal narratives in the courtroom, between “explaining” and being “brief.” The lawyer must lead the legal narrative through a question-answer session as if it were “forced to its inevitable conclusion by the logic of the situation” [3]. Yet, these legal historical narratives must always hide the fact that they selectively draw upon the subjective recollections of witnesses for its own construction. There will then always be a kind of mismatch between the two, as the prosecution’s historical narrative will always leave out the full scope of the witness’ actual experiences.

In the Special Tribunal for Lebanon trial, the prosecution’s historical narrative is clear: the late Prime Minister Hariri was assassinated by members of Hezbollah due to political animosity. We witnessed this legal script start to unravel as Nasser talked extensively about Hariri’s close relationship with Hezbollah (a “close friendship” with one of Nasrallah’s top aides, Nasser explained, much to the woe of the prosecution) and alluded to the ghostly specter of potential Syrian and Israeli involvement. The way the prosecution tries to contain the scope of Nasser’s explanations shows the boundaries of legal narratives in giving voice to the intricacies and complexities of the issue at hand.

On April 15, Nasser was once again on the stand for questioning. This time, he was noticeably subdued. Whereas previously he burst with things to say, the Nasser on Wednesday was a wholly different man. He obediently answered “yes” or “no” to the questions. His explanations, when there were any, were precise and brief. Here, the law told Nasser: tell the truth of what you know about the past, but only in a certain way, and only a truth that is relevant and applicable to the purposes of legal judgment.

As we have witnessed, history, far from guiding the proceedings of the trial, can become a mere toolkit to be used by the actors in the courtroom for the construction of new “legal history.” The questions to keep in mind are then the following: What are the boundaries distinguishing this type of “legal history” and mere rhetoric? At what point does legal truth become simply not the truth at all?



[1] Kalman, Laura: The Strange Career of Legal Liberalism. New Haven: Yale UP, 1996. 184

[2] The Special Tribunal for Lebanon was set up to address the attack resulting in the assassination of Rafic Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, and the deaths of 22 others on 14 February 2005. The indictment and accompanying arrest warrants were transmitted to the Lebanese authorities on 30 June 2011. The four individuals named in the indictment are: Salim Jamil Ayyash, Mustafa Amine Badreddine, Hussein Hassan Oneissi, Assad Hassan Sabra – all of whom are members of Hezbollah

[3] James Boyd White, “Law as Rhetoric, Rhetoric as Law: The Arts of Cultural and Communal Life,” Universal of Chicago Law Review 52, 688

Lecture: ‘Advancing Global Justice in a Turbulent World’

On Monday May 11th ,The Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation and Leiden University are  delighted  to host Dr. Abi Williams, President of The Hague Institute of Global Justice, for a lecture on ‘Advancing Global Justice in a Turbulent World’.

The lecture by Dr. Abi Williams is the first event of our Distinguished Lecture Series, in which we aim to promote dialogue within and outside the walls of the university and act as a bridge between scholarly insights and global practical realities.

The lecture will be held at the Small Auditorium in the Academy Building of Leiden University on Monday the 11th of May15:00 to 17:00, Rapenburg 67-73, Leiden.

During the event, keynote speaker Dr. Abi Williams will provide his unique insight and approach to advancing justice in the complex global context of today, Prof. André Gerrits, Chair of International Studies at Leiden University will moderate the lecture, Dr. Alanna O’Malley from Leiden University will be the discussant, and Catherine Cissé-van denMuijsenbergh, Executive Director of the Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation, will provide an introduction.

The IHJR and Leiden University warmly welcome you to Leiden for this special event!


Presenting our bloggers: Tiffany Wong and Ludo Aerts

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.”[1]

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.”[2] 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.”[3]

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:

  1. Case of Ayyash (STL-11-01)
  2. Contempt case against Al Jadeed TV and Ms Khayat (STL-14-05)
  3. 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?




[1]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.

[2]Moyn, Samuel. The last utopia. Harvard University Press, 2010.

[3]Arendt, Hannah. The human condition. University of Chicago Press, 2013

‘Crossing Borders’ now in Istanbul

The IHJR is very proud to announce that the Institut Français in Istanbul will, in partnership with the IHJR, launch a photo exhibition ‘Franchir les Frontrières’ in Istanbul on March 26 to May 7, 2015.

The exposition is based on the IHJR project ‘Crossing Borders between Turkey and Armenia’, marked by a landmark photo exhibition launched at the City Hall in The Hague in November 2013.

The IHJR and the Institut Français are presenting a visual dialogue between two photographers: Zaven Khachikyan (Armenia) and Mesut Tufan (Turkey) who traveled separately through the borderlands of Turkey and Armenia, documenting the cultures, architecture, and every-day life of its people.

We warmly invite all of you to visit this unique photographic exposition at the Institut Français in Istanbul!


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The Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation (IHJR) works with educational and public policy institutions to organize and sponsor historical discourse in pursuit of acknowledgement, and the resolution of historical disputes. Founded in 2004, the Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation (IHJR) is an independent, nonprofit institution based in Leiden.