July 2022

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

"Introducing the Macquarie Laws of War Corpus (MQLWC)"

This month’s feature is contributed by Annabelle Lukin (Macquarie University) and Rodrigo Araújo e Castro (Universidade Minas Gerais/Macquarie University). They introduce a newly available corpus, based on the key texts of international war law, now available to be searched using corpus linguistics techniques. This corpus enables critical law scholars and linguists to collaborate on studies of c.170 years of international war law, informed by both legal and linguistic theories and methods. 

Every text makes its mark on the world. Some marks are like a small ripple on a pond, while others, like the texts of international war law, are like powerful waves, as they set the legal framework for the use of lethal violence by nation states. These texts construct a semiotic universe in which, among other extreme forms of human behaviour, the killing of children can either be given legal imprimatur, or can be labelled a ‘war crime’.
To enable better interdisciplinary collaboration on these key texts, we have created the Macquarie Laws of War Corpus (MQLWC), based on the texts included by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in their International Humanitarian Law Database
The MQLWC is hosted by the Sydney Corpus Lab. It begins with the 1856 Paris Declaration Respecting Maritime Law, the first open-ended multilateral treaty to which any state could become a party. The most recent document is the latest amendment to the Rome Statute (2019), the legal instrument which established the International Criminal Court, the body with responsibility for trying individuals charged with war crimes, crimes against humanity, crimes of aggression, and genocide. 

concordanceFigure 1: a sample of concordance lines for "civilian" in the MQLWC

The corpus includes a total of 110 texts, nearly 392K words, and can be searched using basic corpus linguistic techniques such as word frequencies (see Table 1 for top 20 lexical items in the MQLWC), text dispersion, concordances and collocations. The corpus can also be searched by the categories to which these documents are assigned by the ICRC, such as ‘victims of armed conflicts’, ‘methods and means of warfare’, ‘criminal repression’, etc. The data set can also be downloaded to use in other programs, such as #Lancsbox or Voyant Tools

tableTable 1: Twenty most frequent lexical (content) items in the MQLWC

Because the data is tagged by year of adoption, diachronic questions (i.e., how do patterns change over the time period of almost 170 years of the data?) can be asked. Figure 2, using Voyant Tools, compares the words ‘military*’ and ‘civilian*’ (with the asterisk denoting that the search includes all related word forms, e.g., ‘civilian/s’), and shows the relative dominance of ‘military’ over ‘civilian’ in international war law, and that ‘civilian’ grows as a preoccupation of international war law over time.

figure of termsFigure 2: Comparing ‘military*’ and ‘civilian*’ across the timeline of international war law

Collocational searches allow us to see the typical words that accompany key words in these texts. Collocates are crucial to understanding the meaning of a word, and the way it is being used in a particular register. With a program like #Lancsbox, we can visualise the collocates of a word, and investigate whether it has proximity to another key word. Figure 3 compares two words, ‘violence’ (on the left) with ‘war’ (on the right). The diagram shows how distinct these two words are in this corpus, with ‘war being a clearly dominant concept, and ‘violence’ being kept at a distance from ‘war’ – a finding that echoes studies of other data. Despite what should be a logical association, we continue to use ‘war’ in a way that protects it from the negative semantics of ‘violence’.

collocationFigure 3: Collocations of ‘violence’ and ‘war’ in the MQLWC

To find out more, read our recently published paper where we give examples of how this corpus can be used to understand the powerful role of the laws of war, not only in restraining geopolitical violence, but also in very clear ways enabling and legitimating it.

People in the News

satirical headline from The Onion

Photo Credit: The Onion

Many citizens of the United States find themselves in a state of shock and anger – or alternatively elation – as the full ramifications of the Supreme Court decision abolishing the constitutional right to abortion start to emerge. Within hours of the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the case that established the legal right to abortion in 1973, a number of states outlawed all provision of abortion services through so-called  “trigger laws” . Protests in favor of abortion rights have erupted across the US  and expressions of solidarity with the protesters have come from a number of overseas leaders and citizen groups

Fear about the further erosion of women’s rights in the US is widespread, a sentiment captured by a headline in the satirical newspaper The Onion about the outlawing of makeup by the US Supreme Court. Such repression is not a joke in Turkmenistan, however, where the policing of women’s bodies has been taken “to the next level,” according to The Diplomat. “[W]hen women around the world are speaking up against injustice and gender discrimination, the Turkmen government is about to further oppress its women by taking away their fundamental right to choose what to wear and how to groom themselves.”


Photo Credit: social media /east2west news

Women in Ukraine are being confronted with another form of personal violation – the occurrence of sexual violence during wartime. A recent commentary by scholars Melanie O’Brien and Noelle Quenivet explains the link between war and sexual/gendered violence. “Wars are inherently gendered and have been since time immemorial. War’s traditional structure is that men go to fight, while women stay at home and take care of the family. In addition, the battlefield itself is gendered: whilst men are killed, women’s bodies are the spoils of war.” The scholars then remind readers of Russia’s particular history of rape during armed conflict over the past 70 years. “As Russian soldiers enter into Ukrainian villages and towns, having been subjected to a culture of violence and impunity bolstered up by their skewed view of masculinity and their gendered conception of society, a sad history of violence against women in World War II and in the conflict in Chechnya accompanies them.”

The Guardian reports that the first trial of a Russian soldier charged with raping a Ukrainian woman is now underway, probably the first of many more to come. The suspect, 32-year-old Mikhail Romanov, will be tried in absentia. Ukrainian prosecutor Oksana Kalyus said that officials believe Romanov is alive and currently residing in Russia. While it is unlikely that Moscow will extradite Romanov if he is convicted and sentenced, Kalyus said Ukraine would ask for Romanov’s arrest if he were to leave Russia for a third country.

ICC spy

Photo Credit: AP/My Visa jobs

In other news about Russia, the Dutch authorities recently reported that they thwarted the attempts of a Russian spy to infiltrate the International Criminal Court. According to Radio Free Europe, the General Intelligence and Security Service of the Netherlands (AIVD) said that “the suspect, identified as Sergei Vladimirovich Cherkasov, came to the country in April using an elaborate deep-cover story that he had built up over the past 12 years…[T]he 36-year-old is an agent with Russia's military intelligence (GRU) and used a fake identity to portray himself as a 33-year-old Brazilian citizen named Viktor Muller Ferreira.” The BBC reports that Russian intelligence has long had its sights on the ICC, and that the Court's importance has only grown since it opened an investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed by Russia in Ukraine.

logo of World Refugee Day

The marking on June 20th of United Nations World Refugee Day highlighted serious contemporary challenges to the resettlement of vulnerable individuals. According to Frontiers Open Access Publishing, “[t]his UN day is dedicated to focusing global attention on those forced to flee their home country to escape conflict or persecution around the globe. It is an opportunity for the international community to stand together in support of refugees, raise awareness of their challenges, highlight their experiences and to inspire action to improve the lives of refugees so that they can thrive. The focus of World Refugee Day in 2022 is on the right to seek safety. The core message is that everyone has the right to seek safety whoever they are, wherever they come from and whenever they are forced to flee.” 

The UK government’s plan to offshore asylum seekers to Rwanda, and more generally to criminalize their arrival by routes deemed “illegal” by the Nationality and Borders Bill, has come under particularly harsh criticism, including in a UK Refugee Council video utilizing star power. The government’s first deportation flight, scheduled for 14 June, was grounded at the last moment with an injunction from the European Court of Human Rights. The offshoring of asylum seekers before their claims have been processed is not, however, that unusual, as reported by Thomson Reuters Foundation News. Other nations have used this strategy to deal with inflows of migrants and refugees, notably Australia and Israel. For more information on this approach, read a 2018 brief from the Open Society European Policy Institute, which takes a comparative look at offshoring asylum and migration management in Australia, Spain, Tunisia, and the United States, and offers lessons learned for the European Union.

Acquitted of ICTR

Photo Credit: Courtesy ICC

International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor Karim Khan has appointed Theodor Meron as his Special Adviser on International Humanitarian Law (IHL). Meron, an eminent international legal scholar and author, served seven terms as President of the UN Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. According to an ICC press release, “[s]pecial Advisers to the Prosecutor are persons with outstanding professional credentials and expertise in their fields. They provide advice to the Prosecutor within their respective mandates as Special Advisers and may assist in training initiatives of the Office.” Judge Meron was a frequent participant and session leader at the Brandeis Institute for International Judges

Developments in International Justice

mock up of new African court

After many years of waiting, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACtHPR) is to have a permanent premises. In a press release, the Court announced that the government of Tanzania is financing the launch of the new construction in Arusha, where the ACtHPR has been headquartered since it began operation in 2004. The government of Tanzania had allocated about 25 hectares to the Court on the outskirts of Arusha town, in the same vicinity as the UN Mechanism for International Tribunals, a residual mechanism of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

tweet from Flores about language discrimination

What language rights do incarcerated persons have? Should they be allowed to communicate in the languages of their choice? These questions were raised following the ban of foreign language dictionaries by a prison in the US state of Michigan. National Public Radio reported that the Michigan Department of Corrections has banned dictionaries in Spanish and Swahili under claims that the books' contents are a threat to the state's penitentiaries. According to a state official, "If certain prisoners all decided to learn a very obscure language, they would be able to then speak freely in front of staff and others about introducing contraband or assaulting staff or assaulting another prisoner." The Twittersphere abounded with commentaries about the “obscure” status of Spanish and Swahili, with over 500 million and 200 million speakers respectively, and what the ban really suggests. Some observers recirculated the decades-old statement by the Linguistic Society of America on language rights


The issue of language rights for prisoners arose in Australia in 2020 through the Hamzy v Commissioner of Corrective Services case, in which the Supreme Court of New South Wales upheld the legality of English-only rules on communication by “extreme high risk restricted” inmates. Scholar Alexandra Grey has analyzed the case – in which Mr. Hamzy claimed the right to communicate in Arabic – noting that the ruling “provides a rare insight into Australian judicial thinking about freedom of expression, racial and linguistic discrimination and what it means, legally, for English to be determined to be our ‘de facto’ national language.”

logo from Stockholm+50 meeting

A recent event in Stockholm marked the 50th anniversary of a significant United Nations conference on the environment. Inside Climate News reports that diplomats from countries around the world gathered at the Stockholm+50 meeting to commemorate the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment – the meeting that made the environment a prominent international issue – and to forge ahead on the current environmental agenda. Beyond the formal proceedings, there were hundreds of side events, both official and unofficial, that made proposals to grant legal rights to nature, to guarantee a human right to a sustainable environment, and to make “ecocide” an international crime. “That term held particular significance: During the 1972 conference, then-prime minister of Sweden Olof Palme first used the word ecocide in reference to the United States military’s extensive bombing and use of Agent Orange to defoliate the jungles of Vietnam. Within the [Stockholm+50] event…, meeting participants of all stripes could be seen wearing quarter-sized “Ecocide Law” pins—the term having evolved to describe all forms of widespread environmental destruction like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest.” 

Logo ecthr

In other environmental news, the grand chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has taken over the case of Carême v. France through the process of relinquishment. The Chamber to which a case is assigned can relinquish it to the ECtHR’s Grand Chamber if the case raises a serious question affecting the interpretation of the Convention or if there is a risk of inconsistency with a previous judgment of the Court. The case in question concerns a complaint by an inhabitant and former mayor of the municipality of Grande-Synthe, located in the Calais region, who submits that France has taken insufficient steps to prevent climate change and that this failure entails a violation of the right to life and the right to respect for right to respect for private and family life. The plaintiff has stressed the particular vulnerability of Grande-Synthe to the impacts of climate change as a low-lying coastal municipality exposed to sea level rise and flooding. Read more about the case in ClimateCaseChart. 

premises of the ICJ

Photo Credit: ICJ

There has been an unprecedented level of support among the nations of the world for the proceedings that Ukraine instituted against Russia in late February 2022 before the International Court of Justice (ICJ), in which it claimed that Russia had no lawful basis to take military action in Ukraine through alleging genocide (Allegations of Genocide Under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Ukraine v. Russian Federation)). In May 2022, 41 states and the European Union issued a joint statement of their support, a group which included small states like Iceland, Malta and the Marshall Islands along with powerhouses such as Australia, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States. In an EJIL:Talk! commentary, Brian McGarry notes some of the challenges attached to such a large number of states wishing to intervene in this ICJ case. For example, not all of the intervening states are signatories to the Genocide Convention, and the exact intention of the intervening states has not been expressed. In his conclusion, McGarry notes another difficulty. “A single intervention can add months or even years to the life of a case… In this light, the Joint Statement promises to exponentially slow the accountability which its signatories are seeking. In the specific circumstances of this case, it is thus worth considering whether these states could more effectively contribute by collaborating with Ukraine ‘behind the scenes’. In contrast to intervening, marshaling resources to directly assist a litigant state with legal and factual questions has raised few concerns in ICJ practice.” 

The Islamabad High Court has ruled that the Pakistani state and all its organs have an obligation to trace disappeared citizens. Human Rights Watch notes that international law defines an enforced disappearance as “the detention of anyone by state forces or their agents who refuse to acknowledge the detention or whereabouts of the person, placing them outside the protection of the law.” Since 2011, Pakistan’s Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances has received more than 8,000 complaints, although activists estimate that the real number of disappearances is undoubtedly much higher. This ruling is the latest in a series of directives to the state to rein in its security forces, directives that have been largely ignored. Human Rights Watch opines that Pakistan does not have the political will to end the practice of enforced disappearances.

Publications and Resources of Interest

photo of gavel
A new post from the ICRC’s Humanitarian Law and Policy blog delves into the fair trial guarantees that must be made available to prisoners of war (POWs) if legal proceedings are instituted against them These guarantees are enshrined in the Third Geneva Convention, adopted in 1949 and now universally ratified. ICRC Legal Adviser Yvette Issar describes when POWs can be prosecuted, and how they must be treated throughout the investigation, pre-trial, trial, and sentencing phases of a judicial procedure. 
This is an appropriate moment to be reminded of obligations vis-à-vis the prosecution of POWs. As the blogpost states, “[t]he first [POWs] in the international armed conflict in Ukraine have been prosecuted and sentenced. These trials will herald hundreds, if not thousands more, as the sides to the conflict have stated their intention to hold POWs in their hands accountable for serious crimes: Russia has reportedly opened investigations into over 1,000 Ukrainian POWs, while the office of Ukraine’s chief prosecutor claims to have registered over 15,000 allegations of war crimes and to have initiated at least 80 proceedings against alleged perpetrators.”
book cover

A new publication, edited by Anne Lisa Kjaer and Joanna Lam, sheds light on the essential process whereby the wording and meaning of international legislative texts are negotiated and communicated across diverse languages. Language and Legal Interpretation in International Law (Oxford University Press 2022) brings together “internationally renowned experts to provide strong theoretical and practical foundations for the study of legal interpretation in such fields as human rights law, international trade, investment and commercial law, EU law, and international criminal law.” The volume’s contributions highlight the context of interpretation and the role of the interpreter as a co-producer of meaning.

A recent book symposium, hosted by the Armed Groups and International Law blog, focused on an important study by international law scholar René Provost: Rebel Courts: The Administration of Justice by Insurgent Groups (Oxford University Press 2021). The publisher’s website notes that while situations of conflict are often seen as lawless, the reality may be different, with armed insurgents often replacing the state as the provider of law and justice. Provost carried out extensive fieldwork in diverse settings to explore this topic, studying the FARC (Colombia), Islamic State (Syria and Iraq), Taliban (Afghanistan), and Tamil Tigers (Sri Lanka), among others. The symposium, featuring commentaries about various aspects of Provost’s book from leading international scholars and practitioners, serves as an excellent introduction to a significant publication. Read about Prof. Provost and his past publications here

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