The Hague puts students' classroom learning to test

Kenya case becomes real-life laboratory with peace and justice at stake

Photo/Amelia Katan

Brandeis students visit the International Criminal Court.

“Congratulations, President Kenyatta, on your recent election victory. And you too, Deputy President Ruto. But don’t forget: your trials for crimes against humanity start as early as next month at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.”

Can the international community really put a sitting president on trial for serious crimes? The leaders of Sudan and Syria may want to take note. As Brandeis students studying in The Hague have learned, international justice presents a bold mix of politics and law. The Kenya case brings this tension to the breaking point, where an electorate has chosen national political leaders charged with masterminding deadly violence, which occurred after the prior round of elections in 2007.

For undergraduates this legal drama offers a reality test for core concepts covered in Brandeis classes on international relations, global studies, human rights, and legal studies. A Hague Court prepares to assess responsibility for mass murder, rape, and ethnic persecution; while in Kenya itself, at least some groups appear ready to turn the page. Across this vast divide the human rights of victims collide with interests of national sovereignty. And the presumption of innocence confounds Western diplomats, who might otherwise shun national leaders charged with serious international crimes. As the place where such clashing perspectives come together, The Hague offers a laboratory for exploring current problems of global justice.  

As the Kenya standoff unfolds over the next two months, Brandeis students in The Hague have started working in internships, based in international courts and in key advocacy organizations. Their perspective as undergraduates provides a healthy balance between law and politics—an important standpoint for assessing legal remedies and regional peace-making. The Kenya crisis will be central for Brandeis students Kelly Peterson ’14 and Michelle Savuto ’15 both now interning with a global NGO with field offices in The Hague and in Africa. (Last year another Brandeis student Jacob Roffe ’13 did a Hague internship on Kenya, helping researchers assess local conditions in the run-up to the 2013 elections.) Currently, Amelia Katan ’15 and Haleigh Brockman ’14 are interning at the International Criminal Court, analyzing communications strategies, helping the court to hone its message to the world amid. Other Brandeis students are spread out with Hague internships across additional tribunals and organizations, working on equally daunting problems in the Balkans, Lebanon, Sierra Leone, the Congo, Mali, Darfur, and with the Roma population in Eastern Europe. For all these hands-on projects, students bring their own particular liberal arts background in politics, anthropology, history, sociology, gender studies, or economics: testing their Brandeis education in a real-life laboratory, where matters of peace and justice are at stake.

Over the past four years, Brandeis in The Hague has brought more than 70 students into this dynamic setting. In cooperation with Leiden University Law School and the Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies, the Brandeis programs immerse students in the search for practical ways to promote justice in a world of violent conflict. The Hague programs were created by the Interdepartmental Programs in Legal Studies and in International and Global Studies, and they include both a spring semester and a separate summer experience, under the academic direction of Professor Richard Gaskins, the Proskauer Chair in Law and Social Welfare and director of Legal Studies and Brandeis in the Hague.

The Kenya case will doubtless take some new turns. Trials may be postponed. And so far the court has worked harmoniously with the accused politicians, who surrendered voluntarily to the prosecutor’s original summons. But will they cooperate for the years it may take to conduct rigorous trials? Can political reality adapt to the more deliberate speed of judicial proceedings; and can justice to the victims of past violence be reconciled with fairness to the accused, and with respect for the nation that recently chose them as leaders over the next five years? We may eventually find some answers along with many more such questions, as The Hague continues to provide a rich venue for exploring global justice.

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

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