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Shedding light on transitional justice efforts in post-conflict settings around the world

July 31, 2014

Penelope Van Tuyl (Left), Associate Director and David Cohen (Right), Director, WSD Handa Center for Human Rights and International Justice

Sam Girvin/The Stanford Daily

The WSD Handa Center for Human Rights and International Justice (Handa Center), formerly known as the Berkeley War Crimes Studies Center, joined theStanford Global Studies Division in April of 2014. The center is dedicated to promoting the rule of law, accountability, and human rights around the world particularly in post-conflict and developing countries. Professor David Cohen, Director, and Penelope Van Tuyl, Associate Director, introduced recently the center’s work to OIA and shared their passion for promoting respect for human rights and rule of law around the world.

Q. Congratulations on joining Stanford University. Can you share the scope of work that you are focusing on in the field of human rights and international justice?

DC: Thank you very much. The center initially had been focused on war crime issues. However, our current work stretches beyond the narrow study of war crimes. To better reflect a broader spectrum of work that we do, we have changed the center’s name from the War Crimes Studies Center to the Center for Human Rights and International Justice.

Our work can be organized broadly into four distinct, interrelated areas: archival resource development, justice sector capacity building, education and civic outreach programs, and trial monitoring.

With many of the programs we run, we are attempting to address areas where there is the greatest need for coverage.  For example, with trial monitoring, we focus on institutions receiving less scrutiny from outside observers, and try to produce reporting about trials that provides information different from and complimentary to that which is produced by larger, more established global organizations such as Human Rights Watch or International Center for Transitional Justice. We draw on our particular strengths as a university-based entity, and we provide analysis of issues that may be ignored or just misunderstood in the existing discourse.

Q. What are some of the center’s primary projects at the moment?

DC: There are several projects that we are focusing on: ASEAN integration and all the human rights activities associated with ASEAN, our continuing work at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), monitoring the trials of alleged former leaders of the Khmer Rouge. We also have been working on rule of law, human rights, and justice sector reform in Indonesia since 2003 while partnering with the Supreme Court of Indonesia and several other leading human rights organizations in the country.

Another focus is the Virtual Tribunal Project, an interdisciplinary initiative to compile a comprehensive multimedia database of war crimes tribunal records, from the post-WWII cases through the contemporary tribunals. The database would be fully digitized, archived in one central location, and rendered searchable through a single online portal that would be available in multiple languages. This project takes seriously the question of how temporary international criminal justice institutions might leave behind a legacy that will be of lasting value for scholars, experts, and international students. It would also benefit people living in post-conflict societies, in whose name these tribunals have been pursuing justice. We seek to assist the legacy preservation of the courts by turning their vast records into a powerful educational tool for both domestic and international audiences.       

"We are very excited to be a part of SGS and look forward to collaborating with all the great area studies and international programs that comprise SGS."

Q. In which countries have you worked so far and how have you engaged with the local partners?

DC: We work both in individual countries and at a regional level. At the regional level, we have worked with ASEAN in creating intergovernmental bodies for human rights in the region. At the national level, we have been engaged with projects and partner institutions in East Timor, China, Vietnam, Thailand, Rwanda, Bosnia, South Korea, Japan, Kosovo, Uganda, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Sierra Leone, to name a few. We currently have local offices in Indonesia and Cambodia. Everywhere we work we make a point of engaging with local partners to ensure the efficacy of our work. We almost always collaborate with local NGOs, universities or governments for our projects.

We also have several longstanding partnerships with U.S.-based centers whose work is complimentary to ours. For instance, since 2003 we have been collaborating with the East-West Center on a number of international justice-related initiatives throughout the Asia-Pacific region.  These collaborative efforts initially centered around discrete research and education projects, such as organizing exchanges and workshops to provide training and support to the judges and lawyers in East Timor and Indonesia. In 2006, recognizing that our collaborative efforts had begun to include a larger number of projects, over a longer span of time, in more countries and at the regional level in ASEAN, we decided to consolidate our partnership under the umbrella of an ongoing joint initiative known as the Asian International Justice Initiative (‘AIJI’).  Projects currently active that fall under the AIJI umbrella include the Khmer Rouge Tribunal Monitoring project and the annual Summer Institute in International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights that we host in collaboration with a local regional body: the Human Rights Resource Center for ASEAN (HRRC).

Q. What would be the benefits of working at a regional level in Southeast Asia?

DC:When it comes to human rights issues, you have a wide range of attitudes and sensitivities within the Southeast Asian community. However, the adoption of the Charter of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has produced an opportunity for a more effective approach to the issues in the region. ASEAN as a legal entity created two intergovernmental bodies for human rights, which are ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights and ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children. Working with them offers opportunities to have high impact on developing policy, which might have not been possible if you work at the national level.

More specifically, Article 2 of the ASEAN Charter that was adopted in 2008 states interconnected principles of the rule of law, good governance, the principles of democracy, and human rights. Based on the Charter, we were able to engage an official dialogue with the countries that we were not able to work with in the past.

When the Charter was adopted, we helped create the Human Rights Resource Center for ASEAN that is based at the University of Indonesia. The Center has thirteen partner universities in seven Southeast Asian countries, and is one of our most important partners in the region. There are two benefits working with the regional partners in Southeast Asia. They have much broader local knowledge and capacity. They also help defuse sensitive reaction from the countries that a U.S. based organization like us often faces.

Q. How has the center engaged Stanford students in your international projects?

DC: Although we are a new center on campus, I (David Cohen) have taught at Stanford for four years now. From the very first year, we had Stanford students going abroad for monitoring war crimes tribunals. For instance, Daniel Mattes ’12 has stayed in Cambodia for about eight months and will return in October. Francisca Gilmore ’13 is there now as an important member of our monitoring and reconciliation project team. The Dean of Humanities and Sciences has generally funded our projects during the summer since I started teaching at Stanford. Going forward, I anticipate that we will involve additional countries as we offer more internship opportunities around the world.

Q. What are some of challenges you face when you work in post-conflict communities?

DC: It is not always easy to get access to criminal justice proceedings as a trial observer, or to historical archives of post-conflict transitional justice records, and this impedes our ability to make comprehensive analysis accessible to the public. It is especially true in countries that have a long history of political division, or little tolerance in public institutions for frank, objective analysis coming from outside observers. In some of the places we have worked, we have found getting basic public records or objective data about the institution under scrutiny very challenging. Obviously this makes it difficult to produce robust analysis of the institutions or historical events in question, but of course it is the opaque institutions we most need to scrutinize.

Q. As a fairly new center on campus, what is your plan to collaborate with different centers or resources on campus?

DC: We are of course very excited to be a part of SGS and look forward to collaborating with all the great area studies and international programs that comprise SGS. In addition to this, we are already collaborating with the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) at Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. We will also be getting in contact with the human rights organizations at the Law School to discuss where we might have mutual interest.

At the individual level, we are fortunate to have worked with faculty such as Terry Winograd in the Computer Science Department, who has advised some of the early development of our Virtual Tribunal project. Going forward, we are looking forward to taking advantage of being located in the middle of this great University, which affords us the opportunity to connect and collaborate with world-renowned experts across a range of disciplines.

Q. Can you share any stories you remember while you were working on war crime and genocide cases?

DC: Penelope and I were very gratified when the Registrar (like a CEO/CFO), Robin Vincent, of the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone approached me and asked me to come to the meeting of the Court’s Management Committee in New York to speak about our monitoring work on the trials that followed the brutal civil war in Sierra Leone.  The Management Committee was composed of representatives of the Court’s most important donor countries. Robin Vincent told me that it was important for the donors to see that the Court was cooperating with an organization that was engaged in objective and highly effective monitoring of its proceedings.  This invitation and the opportunity to speak with the countries funding this important international tribunal provided a validation of the importance of our work.

♦ Facing Justice 

“Facing Justice” is an example of the type of output produced by the Handa Center’s trial monitoring programs overseas.  It is a show produced locally in Cambodia in partnership with Khmer Mekong Films, and shown on one of Cambodia’s leading network TV channels.  The program is aimed at a Cambodian lay audience, in an effort to keep them informed about the tribunal proceedings. It presents a summary of the courtroom’s highlights along with analysis by knowledgeable commentators and special guests.  Episodes are broadcast on television and are available online in Khmer with English subtitles.

Click here to learn more about the WSD HANDA Center for Human Rights and International Justice.