June 2021

International Justice in the News is a monthly e-newsletter about the people involved in the work of international courts and tribunals, significant developments in international justice, and publications and resources of interest. This issue is edited by Leigh Swigart, director of Programs in International Justice and Society.

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Spotlight on Language, Culture and Justice

Linguistic Lives as Working Lives: Exploring Communication Labor with Legal Interpreters' Language Life Histories

By Sonya Rao, American Bar Association/AccessLex Institute Post-Doctoral Fellow in Legal and Higher Education

The life history interview, a type of oral history that covers the events of an individual’s life experiences, is a useful methodological tool for social scientists and historians. In these interviews, researchers can explore the depths of an individual’s historical experience and bring life and personal stakes to political trends and events. It is especially useful for understanding the impacts of these over time.

But despite these benefits, it is not an especially common approach or widely recognized tradition in studies of language. A recent special issue in Journal of Anthropological Research, which I guest edited with colleague Edwin Everhart, hopes to platform the language life history method and approach to interviewing.

The language life histories that have emerged over the years have stood the test of time. Language life histories have provided fundamental insight into a wide variety of perennial topics, among them language shift and revitalization (Kroskrity 1993, 2009) and child and youth development (Orellana 2007, Orellana and Phoenix 2017).

How can language life histories be made useful more broadly? More specifically, how can we use these in law and social sciences, and the study of law and language?

In my article in the special issue on language life histories, I draw on insights from several life histories of legal interpreters. I use their words, life experiences, and perspectives to draw attention to material issues relating to the treatment of legal interpreters in the courtroom. The interpreters’ stories, in turn, show how language life histories are a tool that can reveal invisible communicative labor, describe the process of coming to realize a work arrangement is exploitative, and show how communication work changes across the life course.

Perhaps most importantly for the interests of social justice, the interpreters’ language life histories demonstrated the difficult communication work they put into professional and labor organizing activities. Interpreters’ own efforts to formalize the interpreting profession through mentoring, interpersonal professionalization, and labor organizing have gone under-credited over the last several decades, and the benefits to the justice system of this work continue to be under-celebrated.

In this case, language life histories initiated a first step toward recognizing the communication work interpreters do to maintain the professional standards of their community, often against a tide of agencies and lax regulations that overlook their esteemed qualifications. It is our hope that this useful method can bring light to other important experiences in the legal community and beyond.

People in the News

RyanAir logo

The United Nations Security Council has called for an investigation into the diverted RyanAir flight that ended in the detention of a prominent Belarusian dissident and journalist. Roman Protasevich was on the flight from Greece to Lithuania, where he has reportedly been living in exile since fleeing Belarus in the wake of the 2019 contested election in which Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko retained power. Lukashenko has been in power since 1994 and, explains the BBC, “he operates with an authoritarian style reminiscent of the Soviet era, controlling the main media channels, harassing and jailing political opponents and marginalising independent voices.” Belarusian authorities claim that Protasevich incited public disorder and social hatred in the post-election period. The European Union (EU), of which Belarus is a member, has also reacted to the flight diversion by imposing new sanctions against the state, including a ban on Belarusian carriers flying over EU airspace. Following suit, the US announced that it is drawing up a list of targeted sanctions against key members of the Belarusian government following the arrest of the opposition journalist. Read more about Protasevich in a BBC profile.

The oldest prisoner at the US detention center in Guantánamo, Cuba, has been cleared for release. According to a Los Angeles Times article, Saifullah Paracha, a 73-year old of Pakistani nationality, was a wealthy businessman who lived in the US and owned property in New York. “Authorities alleged he was a ‘facilitator’ for Al Qaeda who helped two of the conspirators in the Sept. 11 plot with a financial transaction.” During his 16 years of detention at Guantánamo, Paracha was never charged with a specific crime. The prisoner review board nonetheless declared, in its decision in favor of his release, that he is no longer “a continuing threat to the US.” Paracha’s clearance does not mean that his release is imminent as the US still needs to negotiate a repatriation agreement with Pakistan.

ICC building

Following the February 2021 conviction of Dominic Ongwen by the International Criminal Court (ICC), the criminal justice world watched his sentencing hearing last month with considerable interest. Ongwen was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Northern Uganda at the age of nine and eventually became a feared LRA commander himself. Over 4,000 of his victims were represented at his trial. Convicted on 61 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, ICC judges sentenced him to a prison term of 25 years, which was not the maximum sentence available. His six years of detention in The Hague will also be deducted from his prison term.

Reactions to Ongwen’s sentence have been variable. Some victims declare themselves disappointed by the relatively lenient sentence, feeling that a life sentence would have better reflected the gravity of his crimes and their own suffering. Some international criminal justice experts have taken a different point of view, however. Commentator Mark Kersten asks, “Do the Dominic Ongwens of the world deserve a bit more empathy?”. In a recent interview with IntLawGrrls, child soldier expert Mark Drumbl states that Ongwen belongs to the category of “victims who victimize.” He observes: “What I see and think to some extent is an individual scarred by his socialization into violence as a young boy – how does that figure or compute in conversations about this criminal responsibility?”

Ongwen's defence team has already indicated its intention to appeal his trial judgment. The victims' reparations phase of the trial has yet to begin.

The West African nation of Benin is steadily turning away from democracy and the rule of law, according to a recent Council on Foreign Relations blogpost. Africa policy expert John Campbell writes that President Patrice Talon, elected in 2016, has “systematically squeezed the substance out of the democratic and constitutional forms, leaving only a shell.” His actions including intimidating or banning the opposition, politicizing the security services and the judiciary, and limiting the media. When the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights criticized the country’s downward trajectory, Talon’s response was to withdraw from the Court’s jurisdiction. Talon won easily in the April 2021 presidential election, facing two little known rivals since most of his key opponents were in exile or disqualified from running. Campbell writes that reactions to the election have been very disappointing. African organizations and neighboring states have not wished to criticize it, and the US, who relies on Benin as an ally in the fight against jihadism, has simply urged citizens to use the courts to pursue grievances related to voter and opposition suppression.

soccer ball painted like a world map

Photo Credit: SVGEurope

World football has announced a new position – not on the field, but rather in the sphere of climate change. Irish climate and policy expert Seán McCabe has become the first climate justice agent for Dublin’s Bohemians football club. According to the club’s website, “Seán’s new role will initially have specific focus on community-led development for climate justice and will be in partnership with other community stakeholders in Dublin 7. It will also focus on building and supporting activities internationally through the European Football Development Network.” CNN reports that a recent study “forecasts that in time extreme weather events and sea level rises caused by climate change will flood stadiums and playing fields. Heatwaves and heat stroke will threaten the health of both players and fans alike.” Such warnings are at the heart of McCabe's ethos and role.

Developments in International Justice

The world has been riveted by the recent spectacle of conflict descending into violence between Israel and Palestine, an all too frequent occurrence which has now ended with a cease-fire. The usual critiques and expressions of support for both sides have been forthcoming, although it has also been observed that the Palestinian perspective has been gaining ground in countries around the world. Why is this conflict so intractable, and will Israel and Palestine ever be held responsible for their respective actions? A recent commentary by Amy Maguire in The Conversation, “Why is accountability for alleged war crimes so hard to achieve in the Israel-Palestine conflict?”, lays out some of the basics in regard to international law while discussing a new factor in the equation, the newly opened investigation by the ICC into alleged war crimes in the conflict.

blue and white graphic that says Uyghur Tribunal

From 4 to 7 June 2021, the public may attend, both in-person and online, an unusual tribunal in the United Kingdom. According to organizers, the Uyghur Tribunal is investigating China's alleged genocide and crimes against humanity against Uyghur and other Muslim populations. It alleges that the People's Republic of China has and continues to perpetrate the most serious of international crimes against the Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in North-West China. The Uyghur Tribunal is an alternative approach to justice, led and funded by civil society and chaired by the high-profile British barrister Sir Geoffrey Nice QC. Those interested may learn more about how to attend the hearings at www.uyghurtribunal.com.

ECtHR building

Should an international court with a crushing backlog of cases consider using algorithmic decision-making to lighten its load? The President of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), Robert Spano, recently indicated that this is a possibility, citing the more than 160,000 applications currently open before his Court. Veronika Fikfak of the University of Copenhagen, who analyses ECtHR case law, does not believe that this is an entirely good idea, however. In a recent Strasbourg Observers blogpost, she raises questions that the Court will have to address if it adopts automated decision-making. Fikfak applauds the openness of President Spano in publicizing this possible new approach, and she agrees that using the new method to help sift through new applications to the Court would revolutionize how cases are processed. She warns, however, that “it also opens up new concerns about the interaction between humans and machines, about the ECtHR case law as a database, and about the need to understand and control the biases inherent in the Court’s jurisprudence. It also raises questions about what training will be provided to those who will interact with the algorithm, so that automation bias may be minimised.”

The one-year anniversary of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which sparked a series of protests around the world in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the recent conviction of his murderer, have inspired new thinking about how transitional justice might help the US overcome its long history of systemic racism. There have been renewed calls for reparations for victims of such racism, including the House of Representatives 40 bill, which would establish a Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans. Historian Kwasi Konadu suggests that the Commission look to the various restorative justice processes that have occurred in Africa, some of which included reparations schemes, in order to learn from their experiences. Konadu observes that “[g]roups representing African and Caribbean nations have offered alternative ways of thinking about the colonial slavery and racial violence driving such reparations efforts.”

Anthropologist Alexander Hinton, an expert in transitional justice, does not think that reparations for Black Americans are sufficient. He suggests the creation of a Truth Commission on White Supremacy and Its Legacies, which would be expansive and address a full range of human rights violations linked to White supremacy in the US. These violations include “lynchings and disproportionate numbers of police killings of Black people, the persecutions of Asians that date back to 19th-century ‘yellow peril’ fears, attacks on Muslim and Jewish communities, and discrimination and violence against those in the Latinx community.” Read more about Hinton’s proposed commission at Sapiens.


“I am able to announce that based upon independent and impartial investigations, complying with international standards and UN best practice, there is clear and convincing evidence that the crimes against the Yazidi people clearly constituted genocide.” These words were solemnly uttered by Karim Khan, Special Adviser and Head of the Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh (UNITAD), in his final briefing to UN ambassadors. Da’esh, also known as ISIL, was found to have committed numerous acts against Iraq’s minority Yazidi population, including executions, sexual slavery, and horrific crimes against children. Khan concluded, “Legislation of course is needed to ensure that Iraq has the legal architecture in place to prosecute this haemorrhage of the human soul: not as common crimes of terrorism, heinous though they are, but as acts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.” Prosecutions of ISIL crimes will also be pursued in other national systems, a process that has already started. A group of five Yazidi women recently brought a complaint in a US court against an ISIL member whom they accuse of complicity in their rapes, beatings, torture and starvation.

Read more about the UNITAD briefing and watch a video of Khan's address in a UN News story. Khan will shortly join the ICC, where he will serve as the Court’s third Prosecutor for a term of nine years.

It was recently reported that the Germany has agreed to pay reparations to Namibia for crimes committed during its colonial control of that region (1884-1915), including genocidal acts perpetrated by German colonial forces against the Herero and Nama ethnic groups. According to ICL Media Review, in 1904 “the German colonial forces crushed a rebellion by Herero and Nama ethnic groups, killing tens of thousands of people. Allegedly, thousands of survivors were forced into the desert and died from dehydration and starvation. In the next four years, members of the two ethnic groups were confined in concentration camps, where many died of overwork, malnourishment, disease, beatings and executions.” Germany will offer an official apology before the Namibian Parliament and will also finance social projects benefitting the areas populated by the two ethnic groups. The two countries were in discussion over many years about how Germany could best make amends for its past actions. As recently as August 2020, Namibia rejected the offer of funds from Germany because they were not labelled “reparations.”

IJM logo

The International Justice Mission (IJM), a global organization combatting violence against the impoverished, reports that the COVID-19 era has not only been characterized by illness and death but also by an increase in human trafficking, exploitation, and other forms of abuse. In a recent op-ed, IJM’s CEO David Westlake wrote, “Stay-at-home orders left women and children trapped at home with their abusers, living with the daily threat of domestic violence. School closures made children more at-risk of trafficking and forced child labour. We have seen spikes in online sexual exploitation of children as sex offenders in places like the UK have been spending more time at home and online, and children in places like the Philippines have been locked in with their traffickers.” Westlake remains optimistic, however, believing that out of crisis can come opportunity. He concludes that “[b]y working together to build back safer, we can see cultures of impunity ended and greater protection for people most vulnerable to violence and slavery.”

UN Women has similarly observed that lockdowns the world over, meant to curb the spread of COVID-19, have resulted in a dramatic rise in intimate partner violence, constituting a “shadow pandemic.” International, national and local efforts to counter the 2020/2021 surge of intimate partner violence have included remarkably creative initiatives. Learn about some of these initiatives, and about artists addressing the emergency, in an article by Toni Shapiro-Phim, Assistant Director of Brandeis University's Program in Peacebuilding and the Arts.

Publications and Resources of Interest

cover of Intercultural Communication in Interpreting

A new book by Jinhyun Cho (Macquarie University) explores two key questions that remain underexamined in the field of intercultural communication: why does intercultural communication often break down, and how do individuals manage intercultural communication challenges? Each chapter of Intercultural Communication in Interpreting: Power and Choices (Routledge 2021) addresses an issue pertinent to small cultural aspects of intercultural communication, including gender, ethnic migrant communities, educational cultures among migrants of Asian backgrounds, and monolingualism/monoculturalism in courtroom and refugee interview contexts. Spanning diverse geographical domains, the book highlights the impact of macro power on interpreting as well as the significance of individual agency and micro power, which can rebalance the given communicative context.

cover of The War Lawyers

IA May 4th post on the International Committee of the Red Cross’ Humanitarian Law and Policy blog seemed to anticipate the conflict that recently erupted between Israel and Gaza. In “In good faith: legal advice during aerial targeting in urban areas”, scholar Craig Jones writes that “[t]elling friend from foe is always a fraught affair, whether from ground, sea, or air, but at the moment fighting enters the city – a space full of civilians and civilian objects – it becomes even more difficult.” Jones has studied this topic for the last decade in relation to both Israel and the United States, and recently published a monograph entitled The War Lawyers: The United States, Israel and Juridical Warfare (Oxford University Press, 2020). In his blogpost, Jones described how “[t]ime and again my research found that commanders look to legal advisers not only and straightforwardly for legal advice, but also sometimes for something approximating permission, and even for psychological and moral support.”

cover of Controlling Immigration through Criminal Law

A new edited volume by Hart Publishing in eBook format provides a systematic and comprehensive overview of the increased role of criminal law in managing migration. In Controlling Immigration through Criminal Law: European and Comparative Perspectives on “Crimmigration”, both scholars and practitioners “critically engage with the current trends leading to the criminalisation of irregular migrants, asylum seekers and those who engage in 'humanitarian smuggling' and the national and common policies calling for a broader use of criminal law measures.” Contributors hail from diverse areas within law, human rights and criminology, which results in a broad understanding of crimmigration issues.