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Students witness war crime trial in The Hague

Published: May 19, 2012
Section: Features, Top Stories


As the Special Court for Sierra Leone convicted Liberian President Charles Taylor of war crimes and crimes against humanity, Brandeis students participating in The Hague semester abroad program witnessed the court’s judgment last month.

Taylor had previously been accused of aiding rebel forces in Sierra Leone, leading to charges that connected him to war atrocities and human rights violations in the country’s decade-long civil war, which ended in 2002.

Carly Lenhoff ’13 interned at the Special Court’s Defence Office during the indictment and witnessed the trial.

“If anything, it reinforced my beliefs about the necessity of a robust defence,” Lenhoff wrote in an email. “A defence is necessary to any legal system, but I think it is especially important in international criminal law, where there is so much publicity foisted upon the defendants.”

Although the charges against Taylor were gross infringements of human rights, including murder, rape and conscription of child soldiers, Lenhoff asserted the necessity for a fair trial to prevail in all cases of international law.

“It would be so much simpler if we, as an international community, could pronounce someone ‘guilty’ by majority vote, as the media frequently does. But the law isn’t about efficiency or ease,” she wrote. “Ultimately, the law is about what is just, and when a legal system allows its defence system to disintegrate, its legitimacy and ability to achieve justice disintegrates as well.”

The Hague study abroad program allows students to immerse themselves in global issues currently plaguing the court. Beyond enrolling in classes for 16 academic credits at Leiden University, students participate in internships.

“Brandeis student interns are now monitoring the fairness of trials at the International Criminal Court; assisting legal counsel defending Liberian warlord Charles Taylor; planning peace initiatives in high-conflict areas (Kashmir, Caucasus, Middle East); assisting war crimes courts for Sierra Leone and Lebanon; researching the testimony of forensic anthropologists in genocide trials; and exploring how African countries are changing their human rights laws,” Professor Richard Gaskins (AMST) wrote in an email.

Gaskins wrote that at Leiden University, students first develop an understanding of how law promotes human rights.“With that knowledge base, students use The Hague as a laboratory for testing out what they’ve learned,” he wrote.

Nathanial Lurie ’13 said the tribunal presents an opportunity to observe new ideas develop within the courts. “Whenever new things get started, the ideas of the leaders, they last forever,” Lurie said via Skype. Connecting the development of the International Criminal Court to the Nuremberg trials, Lurie attests to the continuing growth of international justice.

Beyond the opportunity to engage in classes at Leiden University and become involved in the process of international law, Lurie said it is rewarding to live in another country and become immersed in the culture of the Dutch city. The Hague is home not only to the International Court of Justice, but also to recently established criminal tribunals, including the International Criminal Court, the Special Court of Sierra Leone and the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia.

“The program put me in a position to really dive into the field of international law,” Lenhoff wrote. “We often see the ‘exciting bits’ of law—a judgment, a sentencing, a particularly elegant examination—on television or read about them in class and forget that these 10-minute (or less) moments are the result of weeks and weeks of work which is categorically less exciting.”

Yet, as a consequence of studying in The Hague, she has become particularly aware that “it’s completely necessary—slow, long, hard work is the foundation upon which output in any legal system stands because, without it, there is no final product. There would be no judgment, there would be no brief. Being involved in that sort of process as it occurred really helped me to get a grip on that idea.”

Lenhoff said she recognized the rare opportunity to study international law and participate in current events simultaneously.

“Watching these events, knowing that they’ll be a foundational part of legal decisions and discussion for decades to come is surreal,” she wrote.