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Do war crime trials do more harm than good?

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with the Crimes of War Project

Speakers: Richard J Goldstone, Leslie Vinjamuri, Anthony Dworkin, and Professor Conor Gearty (Chair)
Thursday 3 May 2007


Intuitively all defenders of human rights are in favour of war crime trials. Many take a particular satisfaction from seeing a gross violator of human rights forced to answer in this public way for the terrible wrongs that he or she has done.

There have been great advances in recent years, with various cases now ongoing in The Hague, Freetown and Tanzania, and with the international criminal court about to launch its first prosecutions. But problems are appearing. The proposed prosecution of the leader of the Lords Resistance Army Joseph Kony is said to be threatening to derail the peace process underway in the region affected by his group. The former leader of Liberia Charles Taylor is enjoying some state support for his resistance to court proceedings. Meanwhile France and Rwanda have been trading insults over which leadership is the more complicit in war crimes.

Can the idea of an international code of criminal law survive this contact with grim realpolitik? Will war crime trials become as familiar as ordinary criminal trials are today, or is the whole idea merely a passing liberal fad?


Richard J Goldstone is a former Justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, Chief Prosecutor of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and chairperson of the International Independent Inquiry on Kosovo. He is currently a member of the UN-appointed committee investigating allegations regarding the Iraq Oil for Food Program.

Leslie Vinjamuri is an assistant professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and consultant to Europe- and US-based NGOs on issues of transitional justice and U.S. foreign policy. She is currently researching the effects of justice and accountability on peace negotiations and postwar environments, and the role of nonstate secular and religious actors in transitional justice. She is a visiting fellow in the Centre for the Study of Human Rights.

Anthony Dworkin is Director of the Crimes of War Project. The Crimes of War Project is a non profit organisation dedicated to promoting understanding of international humanitarian law among journalists, policymakers, and the general public in the belief that a wider knowledge of the legal framework governing armed conflict will lead to greater pressure to prevent breaches of the law, and to punish those who commit them.

Conor Gearty is Director of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights and Professor of Human Rights Law at LSE. He is also a barrister and was a founder member of Matrix chambers where he continues to practice.


A transcript of this event is available to download as PDF.