Students learn international court from the inside

Brandeis in The Hague program offers a variety of experiences

Amelia Katan (left) and Haleigh Brockman are interning at the International Criminal Court.

Prosecuting accused war criminals turns out to be a difficult job, once you move beyond abstractions and get down to the practical details. As observers in The Hague have come to realize, when international courts intervene in the world’s most violent places, they can sometimes be seen as taking sides. With the long-smoldering conflicts in the Balkans, Rwanda, Eastern Congo, Darfur and beyond, these new courts face enormous public relations challenges.  

How international trials work in practice has been the focus of two Brandeis students studying in The Hague this past semester. Both Haleigh Brockman ’14 and Amelia Katan ’15 are spending April and May as interns at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Along with 11 other students participating in Brandeis in The Hague, Brockman and Katan spent time earlier in the semester visiting the ICC, watching current trials, meeting with ICC court officials and reading about the history of the world’s only permanent tribunal for international war crimes.

Now in its fourth year of operation, Brandeis in The Hague has brought more than 70 students to this Dutch city known as “the world capital of peace and justice.” In cooperation with Leiden University Law School and the Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies, 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.

Although the ICC opened more than a decade ago, the first criminal trials are only now coming to completion, leaving little doubt that international justice can be disappointingly slow, expensive, incomplete, and often frustrating for the victims.

The first ICC trial, involving the use of child soldiers in The Congo, was mired in competing charges that the court was both unfair to the defendant and too timid in failing to prosecute him for other serious crimes of murder, rape and the persecution of many thousands of victims. The second ICC trial ended in an acquittal for another defendant, although under court rules the prosecution can challenge that outcome on appeal. Apart from running actual trials the ICC has had difficulty rounding up key suspects, including the Sudanese President al-Bashir, not to mention the elusive Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony.

The ICC is eager to tell its own story about its origins and broad humanitarian goals. But now that real trials have started, that story cannot be all sunshine and promise. It must also address the many practical problems that arise when the Court levers itself into ongoing armed conflicts.  Brockman and Katan are helping the ICC professional staff explore new ways to present the court’s message.

Part of the challenge is educational: explaining the court’s purpose to many different groups—everyone from the local African victims of crimes being prosecuted in The Hague, to professional lawyers, to student groups still learning the basic elements of human rights. The story is important but so are the images: How to convey the bright ideals of fairness and balance in the midst of devastating violence?  

According to Katan, working at the ICC has been an eye-opening experience. 

"Walking through the ICC's front doors is simply part of my normal day," she says. "Judges, lawyers, and everyone else intermingle with a variety of languages and backgrounds... It is clear that the ICC is an exceptional and progressive institution which I'm honored to contribute to.”

“This internship has given me the opportunity to directly apply everything I have learned about international criminal law this semester. Being able to put theory into practice has been an invaluable learning experience," she says.

Brockman is equally excited and says even the small interactions are meaningful to her.

“Little things here make me happy like scanning my badge at the front door, or standing in the elevator with the vice president of the court,” Brockman says. I believe so much in the mission of the International Criminal Court and I am in awe of the people who work in this institution. The fact that I get to say I was a part of the ICC, even for just a few months, is honestly a dream come true."

While Brockman and Katan have been working at the ICC, the other Brandeis students are completing internships with other tribunals and human rights organizations, working on problems in the Balkans, other Eastern European countries, Lebanon, Kenya, Sierra Leone, the Congo, Mali and Darfur. For these hands-on internships students bring their particular liberal arts backgrounds in politics, anthropology, history, sociology, gender studies, and economics, applying those perspectives to real-world problems.

Richard Gaskins is Proskauer Chair in Law and Social Welfare and academic program director of Brandeis in The Hague.

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

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