Brandeis in The Hague explores major legal issues

Students go to the heart of international court system, talk with jurists

As we stood in front of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, a dapper gentleman with a neatly-trimmed beard gave us a cheerful wave as he bicycled by on his way to work. It was the first glimpse participants in Brandeis’ six-week study program in international law had of Senior Trial Judge Rene Blattmann of Bolivia.

Once the judge’s bicycle was safely stowed and we had passed through tight security into the building, we would hear much from him about international trials, in a private, off-the-record briefing.

The chance to speak candidly with international judges in The Hague was a memorable part of this Brandeis program for 14 undergraduates, which was marking its second summer.  Students combined classroom study with immersion in heated deliberations taking place throughout this “international capital of peace and justice.”

The program, created by faculty in International and Global Studies Program and the Legal Studies Program, is open to students from all fields of study, with a common focus on issues of global justice and human rights.  In addition to meeting judges, students attend trials, speak with prosecutors and hear from defense counsel about the arduous job of representing accused war criminals. [Program details]

While the trials themselves take place in this cosmopolitan, seaside city in the Netherlands, they grow out of local conflicts embedded in war-torn regions of the world.

Judge Blattmann and two of his colleagues were hearing final arguments in a closely-watched criminal case -- the first trial in this new court to reach the stage of closing arguments.

The case had started years before as a simple charge against a Congolese militia leader for conscripting child soldiers. But international trials face unexpected twists and turns, including, in this case, child witnesses who changed their testimony and procedural snarls that twice nearly forced the dismissal of all charges. 

Participants in the Brandeis program pondered whether criminal trials can help heal the pain of the genocide in Rwanda or of the senseless slaughter in the Balkans.  Is The Hague the correct place to reckon with ruthless leaders from Sudan or Libya?  The answer to such questions depends in part on legal considerations, but even more on political, economic, and cultural forces found in local and regional conflicts.

How do international judges see their own work?  Do they represent the foreign policy of their home countries when they decide questions of human rights, war crimes, and border disputes? The group had a candid discussion on this topic with Judge Sir Kenneth Keith at the International Court of Justice.

A New Zealander, Judge Keith has written extensively on the politics of judicial selection. He spoke eloquently about the oath taken by all international judges to rise above the special interests of one’s home country.  Members of the UN Security Council speak from national interest, but can we not expect judges on the “World Court” to live up to their oath?

 Such neutrality may seem natural to a judge from a small country like New Zealand, but do the world’s superpowers see it differently?  How would a Chinese judge answer some of the same questions?

In the final week of the Hague Summer Program, we made contact with Judge Liu Daqin, an experienced jurist sitting on the Hague tribunal dealing with war crimes in the former Yugoslavia.  Our three Chinese speakers arranged for a private meeting to raise questions, and to test ideas developed throughout the six-week course of study.  As a graduate of Tufts University, Judge Liu was pleased to meet with international students who study in Boston.

Like his counterparts on other courts, Judge Liu sees the potential for resolving global disputes through the institutions of law. But what happens in distant courts is only one component of local struggles for peace and justice.  International judges focus on the individual case, but the long-term implications are often hard to predict. 

The unique, high-profile trials now taking place in The Hague call out for further study.  A broad network of Hague NGO’s and academic research teams is preparing to explore the impact of such trials on regional and local conflicts.  Brandeis students have an unusual opportunity to join these efforts, helping to further global dialogue, while learning about career opportunities in the growing field of international justice.


Prof. Richard Gaskins (LGLS) led the Brandeis Hague Program during Summer 2011.  A semester program in The Hague for Brandeis students is scheduled to begin in Spring 2012.

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences, International Affairs, Student Life

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