December 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

"What does English-language dominance mean for the field of international law and justice?"

leigh swigartThis month’s Spotlight comes from Language, Culture and Justice Hub director Leigh Swigart. She brings us her reflections, along with those of other scholars, about the impacts of having a single language dominate a field that purports to both reflect and serve a global population characterized by enormous linguistic diversity. 

It cannot be denied that the English language has become in the contemporary world what language scholars Ingrid Piller and Alexandra Grey have called the “hyper-central language of globalization”. That is, for the last half-century or so, English has become the medium that ensures communication across a whole constellation of languages. Furthermore, note Piller and Grey, “a native speaker of English has the advantage that this one language is likely to fulfill all their communicative needs on a local, national, international, and global scale.”

book coverThis privileging of English and English speakers has left a pronounced mark on the field of international law and justice. In her provocative monograph Is International Law International?, Anthea Roberts describes how shifts toward English in both spoken and written modes “have clear distributional effects in terms of whom they privilege” (p. 260). Justina Uriburu succinctly captures the essence of what she calls "English-centrism" in the field: “The choice of language significantly determines the way in which international law is made, interpreted, and applied, what knowledge is produced by scholars, and the participants of the conversation.” Scholars Christian Tomuschat and Odile Amman have laid out specific ways in which the dominance of English not only determines which scholars have their work accepted by the most prominent journals and publishers of international legal scholarship, but also how narrowly conceived is this scholarship since the featured authors often cannot read and cite  research beyond the "Anglosphere." Recent Opinio Juris blogposts (here and here), by Alonso Gurmendi and Paula Baldini Miranda da Cruz, offer the perspectives of Latin American scholars who are directly impacted by both linguistic and cultural bias in the field: "We posit that peripheral scholars may be less represented at least partially because they communicate differently and have different things to say from those that are already part of the establishment of international law."
      Furthermore, notes Amman, linguistic hegemony results in the disproportionate transfer of concepts and ideas from certain municipal orders into international law, which skews processes of identification and interpretation (p. 21). Michael Bohlander has offered a similar perspective: “English has become the lingua franca in international legal academic and practical dialogue, and there is a related concern that English – or its direct descendant, Anglo-American – intellectual and legal culture has drawn a thick veneer over the canvas of international criminal law as well” (p. 499). Authors Daniel Terris, Cesare Romano and Leigh Swigart put it this way: English has become a “conveyor belt of American legal culture to the international level” (p. 78). 

ICC interpretersMy own contribution to this debate is a piece entitled "The Impacts of English-Language Hegemony at the International Criminal Court" (open-access version available here),  a chapter in the soon-to-be published book, International Criminal Justice – A Counter-Hegemonic Project? (Springer 2023). Based on a multi-year ethnographic project on how the ICC addresses diverse language challenges, this chapter explores the impact of the uneven status of the Court’s working languages, English and French, on those who work at and with the ICC, as well as on what the Court conveys to the world through the communications of its top officials, its judgments, its outreach activities, and its everyday language choices. I aim to show that English-language hegemony is not only entrenched but has detrimental effects for the ICC in both practical and symbolic spheres, rendering the Court less efficient while also undermining its mission as a global institution. (The 2020 report of the  Independent Expert Review of the ICC notes in its very short section on "Multilingualism" that more French speakers should be recruited as staff but presents this imbalance as a strictly practical problem).  I also contend that while the ICC’s “constituents” as well as its own staff speak many languages, the institution itself operates according to a monolingual ideology, one that implicitly considers communication via a single and discrete language as expected, normal and desirable.
What Amman eloquently asserts (p. 30) about international legal scholarship can be extended, I believe, to the entire field of international justice, across its full range of instruments, institutions, processes and communicative acts – “[international law] cannot afford to ignore the language biases that it creates and perpetuates unless it is willing to sacrifice its own credibility and relevance. If we do not address language bias, the legality and legitimacy of inter­national law will continue to suffer."

People in the News

photo of jack smith

Jack Smith, a former Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court and more recently the Specialist Prosecutor at the Kosovo Tribunal in The Hague, has been appointed by the US Justice Department to oversee the criminal investigations into the retention of classified documents at former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, as well as parts of the 6 January 2021 insurrection. In addition to his international experience, Smith has a long history of relevant domestic work, at both the state and federal level. He has prosecuted cases of public corruption, including those involving lawmakers. He also served from 2010 to 2015 as chief of the Justice Department’s public integrity section, which investigates politicians and other public figures on corruption allegations. Read more about Smith’s appointment from in a US Justice Department press release.

photo of Alex WhitingSmith’s position in the Kosovo Specialist Prosecutor’s Office has been filled for the time being by another veteran international and domestic prosecutor, Alex Whiting. Read an extensive interview with Whiting from the Brandeis Ad Hoc Tribunals Oral History Project.

The 2022 Men’s World Cup has shone a spotlight on the abuses suffered by the migrant laborers who built all the infrastructure necessary for this massive worldwide tournament, held in Qatar. FIFA, the World Cup governing body, has been widely criticized for awarding this year’s competition to a country with a troubled human rights record, and for its complicity with Qatar in the long lead-up to the competition. Human Rights Watch reports that migrant workers and their families are now demanding compensation from both FIFA and Qatar authorities for abuses, including unexplained deaths, that workers suffered preparing for the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup. Since the beginning of the Cup on 20 November, members of the European Parliament have adopted a resolution condemning the deaths of migrant workers during preparations for the World Cup. According to EuroNews, “[t]he lawmakers called on the international football governing body FIFA to contribute to a remediation programme for workers' families as compensation and urged Qatari authorities to conduct investigations into the deaths of migrant workers.”

Watch a five-minute video from Human Rights Watch in which Nepalese workers and their families, as well as football fans, speak out against the injustices migrant laborers have suffered.
stadium in qatar
logo for AFLA
Millions of Russians are no longer protected by the European Convention on Human Rights. Following Russia’s exclusion from the Council of Europe on 16 March 2022, as a result of its aggression against Ukraine, the Russian Federation ceased to be a High Contracting Party to the European Convention on Human Rights on 16 September 2022. “Russia’s aggression against Ukraine continues to bring pain and suffering to millions of people in Ukraine and all over Europe. We once again urge the Russian leadership to immediately stop the war in Ukraine and to put an end to the ongoing repression of its own people,” said Marija Pejčinović Burić, Secretary General of the 46-state Council of Europe. “It is truly regrettable that, with its departure from the European Convention on Human Rights, Russia will further isolate itself from the democratic world and deprive more than 140 million Russian citizens of the protection offered by the Convention.” The Council reports that it will continue to support and engage with human rights defenders, democratic forces, free media and independent civil society in the Russian Federation
Kunti Kamara
Two domestic courts in Europe are engaged in proceedings against actors involved in acts of violence on the African continent. These cases are based on the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows domestic judicial systems to judge international crimes committed outside their country and by non-nationals.
             On 2 November, a French court found former Liberian rebel Kunti Kamara guilty of complicity in crimes against humanity during the civil war that took place in his home country 30 years ago. Kamara was also convicted of torture and aggravated acts of barbarism. The court sentenced him to life in prison. Kamara, a naturalized Dutch citizen, was arrested in France in 2018 after another Liberian rebel commander called him as a defense witness in his own trial in Switzerland. Kamara’s defense counsel in France believes that he did not benefit from the presumption of innocence to which he is entitled. Read full details about the case from JusticeInfoNet.
Alex SchneiterA Swedish court recently received the green light from the Supreme Court to prosecute a former CEO of the Swedish group Lundin Oil, Swiss national Alex Schneiter. Along with Swedish citizen Ian Lundin, Schneiter is charged with complicity in alleged war crimes committed in Sudan between 1999 and 2003. Even in the exercise of universal jurisdiction, Sweden requires that a case have some form of connection to its country and that the case furthermore conform to international customary law. Both of these requirements have been satisfied. According to the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, “Lundin Oil is suspected of funding the Sudanese army and several militias to chase away local populations from regions where the company planned to carry out oil exploration.”  The oil group has asserted that "there are no grounds for any allegations of wrongdoing by any representative of the company."

Listen to a 15-minute podcast from Asymmetrical Haircuts about the Lundin Oil case.

Developments in International Justice

logo of COP27


The much-anticipated 27th Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC (COP 27), the most recent global conference on climate change, has now ended. According to the organizers, the conference aimed to address climate change through four approaches: mitigation, adaptation, finance, and collaboration. Was COP 27 a success or a failure? According to Felix Dodds and Chris Spence in a piece for Global Issues, “COP 27 was both better and worse than we’d hoped.” Progress on mitigation has been modest, they observe, with developing countries feeling frustrated that developed countries, historically responsible for the bulk of carbon emissions, are not doing enough while exhorting others to take action. Movement toward adaptation has gained more ground, with delegates agreeing to develop a framework to be available for adoption at the next COP. The biggest, and most surprising, success was the agreement reached to create a “Loss and Damage” fund to help countries most vulnerable to climate change. This has been key issue for over 30 years, in particular for small island developing countries. “A goal has now been set to fully operationalize the fund at COP 28 in a year’s time,” they write. A recent ICRC blogpost points out a common blind spot in discussions around such funding. They tend to ignore the climate change-related needs of countries experiencing conflict

While Dodds and Spence did not delve into the collaboration aspect of COP 27’s goals, an important initiative in this direction is the  strategic alliance just signed by Brazil, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The New York Times reports that these “three countries that are home to more than half of the world’s tropical rainforests… are pledging to work together to establish a ‘funding mechanism’ that could help preserve the forests, which help regulate the Earth’s climate and sustain a variety of animals, plants, birds and insects.” Brazil’s president-elect, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, addressed the gathering at COP 27, promising to end the Amazonian deforestation which increased under his predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro. Without a clear source of funding, however, the strategic alliance remains mostly a call to action.

In an unexpected change of policy, the United Kingdom has agreed to negotiate with Mauritius on the handover of the Chagos Islands, which many believe were unlawfully retained when Mauritius gained its independence in 1968. The Guardian reports that “[t]he intended agreement will allow for the return of former inhabitants of the Chagos archipelago who were forcibly displaced by the British government in the 1960s and 1970s. The UK would intend to maintain control of its strategic Indian Ocean military base in Diego Garcia, which it leases to the US.” UK control over the Chagos Islands has been ruled as illegal by both the International Court of Justice, which deemed that “the process of decolonization of Mauritius was not lawfully completed when that country acceded to independence,” and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, which confirmed the sovereignty of Mauritius over the Chagos Archipelago. Read more about the story of these islands, and about the recent book recounting their prolonged struggle for decolonization and full sovereignty by international lawyer Philippe Sands, at The Interpreter

map of chagos islands

In news on a related topic, the United Nations Fourth (Special Political and Decolonization) Committee recently approved a draft decision to request an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory.  The Jurist explains, “[t]he draft stipulates Israel’s violation of Palestinian rights to self-determination from its prolonged occupation, settlement and annexation of the Palestinian territory, occupied since 1967, including measures aimed at altering the demographic composition, character and status of the holy city of Jerusalem, and from its adoption of related discriminatory legislation and measures.”  Israeli Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan criticized the draft at the Committee hearing, calling it part of a “long line of anti-Israel resolutions,” adding that “[t]he only purpose is to demonize Israel and exempt the Palestinians from responsibility.” Read more about the Israeli reaction to the draft decision, and which states supported and opposed it, at The Times of Israel.

chart of fourth committee

logo of Cultural Property News

Proposed changes to UNESCO’s provisions on cultural property have alarmed some observers and led to fears that the endorsement of state ownership of all cultural objects, including private and religious property, could end most global trade.  Cultural Property News explains that earlier interpretations of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property may have called for demonstration that so-called “cultural heritage” truly expressed a nation’s identity, or proof that it was under threat or had been subject to serious pillage. The 2022 proposed Model Provisions, in contrast, “would apply severe restrictions to trade in an exceptionally broad range of objects, from national treasures to objects duplicated in the millions. They cover ethnological art and items mass produced for commerce as well as antiquities. All the proposed changes are geared to expanding the reach of foreign state governments’ control over European, UK, and US ownership of art and cultural property, whether it belongs to private citizens, museums or is circulating in the art trade.” Experts in the field also note that UNESCO has failed to solicit or attend to public comment about the proposed changes from key stakeholders.

Russian tank and soldiers

Photo Credit: Ilya Pitalev / Sputnik via AP

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York recently unsealed an indictment charging five Russian and two Venezuelan nationals with the illegal sale of US military goods and technology to Russia to support its war with Ukraine. The case, United States v. Orekhav, et al., involves the company Nord-Deutch Industrienlaganblau (NDA), which is headquartered in Germany but operated by several Russians with ties to oligarchs. US military technology sourced by NDA has been found on battlefields in Ukraine. The company was also used as a front to traffic smuggled Venezuelan oil. According to Fortune, the seven individuals had a complex system for laundering money on behalf of wealthy Russian businessmen while circumventing US sanctions — “complete with Hong Kong shell companies, bulk cash pick ups, phantom oil tankers and the use of cryptocurrency to cloak transactions that are illicit under U.S. law.” Reuters reports that “[t]he charges and sanctions come as Washington is seeking to expand sanctions on Russia and crack down on evasion to pressure the Kremlin to stop its invasion of Ukraine.”
Mahsa Amini
Attempts to fight money laundering have also been seen on another front in recent weeks. The nation of Switzerland, long associated with a secretive banking system that services the ultra-wealthy, will draft a bill on creating a register of beneficial owners of certain designated companies by the end of June 2023, with the goal of increasing transparency and combatting money laundering. According to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), “[t]he registry proposal, which follows similar reforms in the United States, the European Union and elsewhere, comes one year after ICIJ’s Pandora Papers exposed the especially active role of Swiss wealth advisors in helping suspected financial criminals hide wealth.”

Publications and Resources of Interest

Reed Brody
Human rights lawyer Reed Brody has just published a book about the successful prosecution of Hissène Habré, whose brutal dictatorship in Chad lasted from 1982 to 1990. Habré was the first former head of state to be convicted of crimes against humanity in the courts of another country, in this case the specially constituted Extraordinary African Chambers in Senegal.  Columbia University Press describes To Catch a Dictator: The Pursuit and Trial of Hissène Habré as a “dramatic insider’s account of the hunt for Habré and his momentous trial… Brody recounts how he and an international team of investigators, legal experts, and victims worked across three continents to unearth evidence and witnesses, petition courts and skeptical governments, and rally public opinion.” 
Watch a short promotional video about the book. Read a press interview with Brody from Columbia University Press. And see Brody’s appearance on the US news program “Morning Joe” (7 minutes) where he suggests that what worked for the prosecution of Habré might be applied to Vladimir Putin to hold him accountable for Russian acts of aggression in Ukraine.
Human Rights Quarterly

A recently published article in Human Rights Quarterly by scholar Richard Ashby Wilson, “The Anti-Human Rights Machine: Digital Authoritarianism and the Global Assault on Human Rights,”  explores how governments and state-aligned actors increasingly target human rights defenders online using techniques such as surveillance, censorship, harassment, and incitement. Wilson terms such techniques “digital authoritarianism.”

His article analyzes the characteristics of anti-human rights speech and provides new empirical findings on the negative effects on human rights defenders in Colombia and Guatemala. Human rights defenders who are targeted online report negative health outcomes and identify a nexus between online harassment and the criminalization of human rights work. The result is that many take protective measures, engage in self-censorship, abandon human rights work, and leave the country. Wilson asserts that to prevent these harms, social media companies must implement stronger human rights-protective measures in at-risk countries. The article concludes by advocating for a new United Nations-sponsored Digital Code of Conduct that would require states to adopt transparent digital policies.
Read an open-access version of the article. Watch a YouTube video of Wilson discussing this topic at a recent event hosted by Arizona State University's Center on the Future of War. 

book cover
Special Opportunity

Submissions are now open for the 2023 issue of the SAIS Europe Journal of Global Affairs, whose theme this year is "Non-State Actors."  Submissions are open to graduate students, professors, and industry professionals, both those connected to the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and those from outside the institution. The deadline for submissions is 1 February 2023. More details are available here.