Influencing the Tide of International Law (in a Tiny, Tiny, Minuscule Way)

2016 Cooke FionaBy Fiona Cooke

I am now one week out from finishing my internship at Avocats sans frontières Canada in Québec City. Although one week isn’t really enough time to look back with any sort of objective perspective on my internship, I do feel able to draw a preliminary conclusion about my time at the organization, and the work that I did.

On the last day of my internship, I had a réunion de retroaction with the supervisor I worked most closely with. She asked me to offer my suggestions on what I felt they could do better, or what sort of things I didn’t like as much about the internship. What I said to her at the time was that I would have liked to have done more “practical” work. I can’t quite recall what inspired this criticism; I vaguely remember a fellow intern being assigned the task of researching the functioning of legal aid in Ontario, and I was envious of that seemingly fascinating assignment. I thought about some of the questions I had been posed – does the state, because of its legitimate monopoly on violence, maintain this monopoly in the context of an armed conflict to which IHL would apply? How does the ICC interact with human rights law, as a criminal court? Is there a justiceable right to peace in international law? These questions, while absolutely fascinating, all felt very theoretical – floating on some higher plane, divorced from context and individuals. I am so grateful for having been assigned them – I now have a much broader and more solid understanding of the various areas of international law, when they apply, and how they interact with each other. However, I didn’t feel like I had witnessed any way in which these areas of law had impacted real peoples’ lives. I remember thinking: my work is interesting to me, and useful to me – maybe not so useful for individual vulnerable people in Haiti, or Mali, or any of ASFC’s other countries in which it works. However, now, with a bit of distance, I’m better able to see the larger picture.

Colombia’s government and the FARC-EP rebels signed the Peace Agreement on June  23rd[1], a momentous occasion that everyone hopes will signal a significant and genuine step towards ending the conflict that has devastated Colombians for decades. The Peace Accord includes unique provisions that foresee punishments alternative to time in prison for the perpetrators of international crimes.[2] The questions on everyone’s mind were: 1) will this fulfill Colombia’s obligation under international law to punish perpetrators of these crimes? – because if it doesn’t, the ICC could step in, and 2) will this satisfy the victims’ right to justice? Are “restrictions of liberty” combined with acts of community service enough of a punishment? Is it a punishment at all? No international tribunals have ever given any punishment other than prison time. This is an innovative test case for restorative justice after international crimes, and the debate is fascinating.

When the accord was signed, ASFC released multiple data fact sheets, explaining the context of the agreement and what it included in terms of transitional justice for victims, as well as a its official evaluation of the peace agreement. While reading these fact sheets, one line struck me – it was a line that summed up the conclusion of one of my first memos I had written for my supervisor. Behind that one short sentence was 3 weeks of intense research, thinking, and learning on my part. It made me think about just how much human effort and passion goes into research by NGOs in order to make informed and careful statements or suggestions that will have an impact on real situations. The research that I had done, alone in my office, lost in the puzzle pieces that are IHL, IHRL, ICJ, and one hundred other initialisms, ended up informing ASFC’s official position on the new Colombian peace agreement. In the end, ASFC came out in cautious support of the agreement, provided its provisions were carried out with genuine intent to bring the perpetrators of crimes to justice. ASFC is an influential organization that others will look to to inform their own opinions, trusting the research that is behind this organizations’ conclusions. And opinions are the motor of international law, it seems – forming opinions will influence what direction the law actually takes. ASFC’s opinion is one of potentially multiple cautiously optimistic takes on the Colombian Peace Agreement that may, eventually, profoundly influence international criminal justice – moving its focus away from punishment and more towards reconciliation and rebuilding societies, and allowing for more flexibility in situations of conflict.

So, I see it now as a snowball effect – the tiny amount of contribution I made by way of my memo has its place in the larger role that NGOs play in international law in influencing both public opinion and the opinions of judges world-wide. That being said, I realize that the point of doing this work is not the personal gratification of seeing its effects in the real world – I just mean to say, there is indeed value in sitting alone in an office, wading through the morass that is international law – without these drops in the bucket, the larger waves would not materialize.


[1] “Colombia & FARC Agree to Ceasefire in Historic Peace Deal, Begin Long Process of Implementation” Democracy Now (23 June 2016), online: http://www.democracynow.org/2016/6/23/colombia_farc_agree_to_ceasefire_in

[2] Helen Murphy, “Colombia’s FARC may face alternative justice, not impunity” Reuters (5 September 2013), online: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-colombia-peace-interview-idUSBRE9840VZ20130905

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