Selling Justice Short: Reflections on Reconciliation, Accountability, and Weight Loss

By Tiran Rahimian

A night view of the Empire State Building, where HRW’s offices are located.

One of the very first remarks made by my darling mother upon my return to Montreal was, perhaps unsurprisingly, that I had lost a fatally dangerous amount of weight. At first, I curtly brushed off the observation as an archetypal exaggeration of maternal love. But confronted to the cold, hard numbers of our bathroom scale, I couldn’t help but ponder on the reasons of this incontrovertible reduction of my body mass. It surely wasn’t malnourishment? I spent the equivalent of my Montreal rent every month at the delightfully nutritious Whole Foods Market buffet near Bryant Park. Certainly not over-exercising either? As much as I liked to profess to my friends that I was jogging every morning in Central Park (in part by recycling saved snaps of the same run over and over again), I simply lacked the stamina and willpower to stick to a proper cardio routine.

I realize that, surely for physiological reasons beyond my understanding, I tend to lose significant weight whenever I’m pushed out of my comfort zones for a protracted amount of time. I lost weight when, after a comfortable upbringing in Montreal, I returned to my native Tehran to finish my middle school. I also lost weight in my first months of law school, and again when I began clerking at the Court of Appeal last year. And HRW undeniably fit into that trend: my time in New York city profoundly challenged me on both intellectual and personal fronts, and, while ultimately cementing and confirming many of my previous convictions, compelled me to go through a long process reflection on of some of the drivers that had underpinned my interest in international justice.

“I would give all my fame for a pot of ale…” –Henry V. A riotous mix of high art and low comedy, Drunk Shakespeare is an Off-Broadway must-see where a professional actor ups six shots of Whiskey before embarking on a classic Shakespeare performance.

In IJ circles, the enduring debate on whether seeking accountability for grave international crimes interferes with prospects for peace is close to always brushed off with the self-evident response that there is ‘no peace without justice’. But the tension, I came to learn, is anything but axiomatic. With the inception of the UN Security Council Commission of Experts for the Former Yugoslavia in October 1992 – at a time when the UN-EU International Conference was already managing a peace process – the stage appeared set for a tense relationship between accountability for core international crimes on the one hand, and international mandates for peace and reconciliation on the other hand. The already polarized ‘peace versus justice’ debate crystallized with the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in 1994, paving the way for a broad discourse on the compatibility of the two.

South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission– and its wide media coverage following the fall the Apartheid government – was heralded by some ‘peace-before-justice’ proponents as demonstrating the importance of pacifying, or at least postponing, calls for criminal justice accountability until after peace has taken proper hold. The temptation to suspend justice in exchange for promises to end a conflict has similarly arisen with respect to the International Criminal Court’s work in places like Darfur and Uganda, and threatens to recur in coming years as conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, and Myanmar approach their conclusion. Thankfully, the symbiotic relationship between peace, justice, and building a sustainable culture of human rights isn’t merely heralded as a self-evident truth, but has also been subject to empirical analysis by scholars and organizations like HRW itself.

Slight cultural shock

Rereading myself, the relationship between my weight loss and reflections on justice and reconciliation is perhaps…spurious. But I still like to think that my time working at HRW pushed me out of my professional and intellectual comfort zones, and was ultimately one of personal growth. Witnessing firsthand the inner workings of an NGO as influential and remarkable as HRW, hanging around diplomats at UN meetings, and working on the most pressing matters of international justice across the globe will certainly stand out as one of the more delightful challenges of my time at McGill law.

The Times They Are a-Changin

By Tiran Rahimian

In justifying the crimes of Milo in an internal armed conflict in Rome, Cicero pleaded, “silent enim leges inter arma.”[1] Times have, somewhat, and thankfully, changed. The past century alone has witnessed the crystallization of the laws of war, the emergence of a rules-based, human-centric global order, and the rise, and decline, and rise, of international criminal justice. Despite remarkable progress, however, the pertinence of law in the anarchically barbaric realities of war remains to this day contentious, and the objection that law falls mute when collective survival is jeopardized continues to resonate with the cynics and so-called realists of our world. To make matters worse, the rise of inward-looking populist movements in recent years poses yet another challenge to the international legal order, and may very well prove to be its litmus test. In this climate, the work of NGOs such as Human Rights Watch is more crucial than ever, and it was with a sense of both humbleness and awe that I began my internship within its International Justice (IJ) Program.

View from the offices of Human Rights Watch on the 35th floor of the Empire State Building

My first few weeks were euphoric. International criminal law had been the bread and butter of my 3L, and the organization’s IJ department comprised some of the foremost experts and brilliant legal minds in that field (evidently explained by the disproportionate presence of McGill law alumni). The work was intellectually stimulating, pedagogically instructive, and above all, fulfilling. But as I went from drafting one memo to another, and attending one UN meeting to another, I became struck with ivory-towerist doubt. There was an unsettling detachment between the refined protocols of lawyering, which reduced the indescribable to the antiseptic confines of legal reasoning, and the solemn suffering of victims on the ground. That I happened to be situated at the 35th floor of the Empire State Building, metaphorically looking down into the arena of human rights violations, certainly didn’t help either. I brought up some of my thoughts with the IJ Program’s highly esteemed Director, Richard Dicker, who helped me alleviate some of my questioning. Remarkably approachable, he combined humility with activist fervor, and expertise with empathy. He taught me to keep the big picture in mind, to appreciate the significance of victim-centric activism, and that the impact of advocacy work need not necessarily be quantifiable or measurable. Comprehensive, effective human rights advocacy, it became clear to me, comprises both activism in the field, as well as ‘detached’ lawyering within courts and intergovernmental organizations­­–both of which are equally indispensable.

As I continued my work and kept on top of the latest developments at the International Criminal Court (ICC)– the only permanent tribunal that holds perpetrators of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity accountable–, I came to another realization: the arena of international justice faces some incredibly thrilling and momentous years ahead. Born from the ashes of the Second World War in the form of the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials, virtually dormant throughout the geopolitical paralysis of the Cold War, and revived in the 1990s through the ad hoc tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda and the adoption of the Rome Statute, the realm of international justice is bracing itself for consequential developments as the ICC ends its adolescent years.

Fun fact: protecting Mr. Trump’s private residence on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue costs about $308,000 per day for local and federal taxpayers.

For one, we might very soon witness the end of what has been dubbed the issue of ‘US exceptionalism’ in international criminal justice. On November 20th 2017, ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda formally requested judicial authorization to open an investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated in connection with the Afghan armed conflict. The investigation, if sanctioned by the Court’s Pre-Trial Chamber, would represent a feted shift in global justice, marking the first time in history an international tribunal has contemplated crimes allegedly perpetrated by US nationals.

Second, as I have argued elsewhere, the coming months could also mark a climax for decades of gender justice advocacy. The ICC’s potential probe into Afghanistan would be the first instance where the Court is poised to interpret one of the most controversial terms in its statute: ‘gender’. Reflective of political compromises and a tendentious negotiating history, the Rome Statute’s highly disputed definition awkwardly sits somewhere between a sociological and biological conception of gender: “For the purpose of this Statute, it is understood that the term ‘gender’ refers to the two sexes, male and female, within the context of society.” But this constructive ambiguity also leaves room for creative lawyering: as much as the conservative side might emphasize ‘the two sexes’, proponents of a more progressive and wide understanding could weaponize the words ‘within the context of society’, which could potentially extend to members of the LGBTQ.

Je me souviens.

Third, the ICC has been increasingly venturing into the uncharted waters of non-member states, inching closer to an ideal of universality. Of course, absent a referral by the UN Security Council, the Court can only assert jurisdiction where the “conduct in question” was committed on the territory of a member state, or if the alleged perpetrator was a national of a member state. But that hasn’t stopped the Office of the Prosecutor from conceiving ingenious arguments to stretch the Court’s jurisdiction. Regarding the plight of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar, a state not party to the Rome Statute, Fatou Bensouda recently asked the Court to confirm its jurisdiction on the basis that a legal element of the conduct, crossing a border, occurred in Bangladesh, which is a member state. Its preliminary examination of Palestine, and its ongoing investigation into Georgia, similarly probe crimes committed by nationals of non member states, namely Israel and Russia. While, as I have explained elsewhere, atrocities committed in Iraq and Syria remain out of the Court’s reach, recently established investigative mechanisms by the General Assembly and the Security Council have been collecting evidence of these crimes, and the issue of accountability in the fertile crescent appears to be more a question of when and how, rather than whether.

Human Rights Watch’s 1997 Nobel Peace Prize as as a founding member of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

To say that these developments will be controversial would be a grave understatement. Times have certainly changed since the days of Cicero, and they will likely continue to change in the decade to come. The road towards accountability is by no means clear, and is certainly rocky. Potential probes into Palestine and Afghanistan would be political dynamite, and accountability advocates have been bracing themselves for when the proverbial excrement hits the fan. At any rate, the arena of international justice faces excitingly tumultuous times ahead, and interning at Human Rights Watch has helped me keep on top of these historic developments.

[1] “Laws are silent among [those who use] weapons” (Cited in Cicero, Pro Milone, 4.11).

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