International criminal courts as fact (and truth) finders in post-conflict societies: can disparities with ordinary international courts be avoided?

Author:van den Wyngaert, Christine
Position:The American Society of International Law and the Rise of International Courts and Tribunals: An Eventful Century - Proceedings of the One Hundredth Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law: A Just World Under Law

I want to make three points in connection with David's lecture, looking at his subject from my own perspective, i.e., that of a judge in an international criminal tribunal. First, I want to consider the specific function of international criminal courts and tribunals as "truth finders." Secondly, I will examine how international criminal courts fit into David's theoretical picture of "top-down" versus "bottom-up" judicial bodies. Thirdly, I wish to convey some of my concerns arising from the multiplication of proceedings (criminal and civil) arising from the same facts before different international courts and tribunals.

International Criminal Courts as Truth Finders

A new feature of the international legal order in the past few decades has undoubtedly been the reemergence of international criminal courts, with the ad hoc criminal tribunals of the United Nations (the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR)), the regional mixed international tribunals (Sierra Leone, Cambodia, East Timor), and the permanent International Criminal Court (ICC). The driving impulses behind the creation of these institutions may, as David mentioned in his lecture, differ from those behind the classical international courts and tribunals. One of the functions of international criminal law courts is that of providing a historical account and achieving reconciliation of post-conflict societies that have gone through a painful episode of mass atrocities.

This is something which they share with another newcomer in the international legal order, truth and reconciliation commissions (TRCs), which in part originate from the same generating impulses. The latter may even be complementary to international criminal adjudication, as Tom suggested in his Holocaust memorial lecture, wondering whether the post-World War II criminal proceedings in Nuremberg should not have been complemented by a truth commission that could have examined the greater patterns of the historical truth behind the holocaust. (1)

According to some, international criminal courts have, as far as truth finding process is concerned, little to add to the "truth" as it is revealed by journalists or historians, who base themselves on largely the same sources. I beg to disagree with that view. The truth finding process before criminal courts is of a different qualitative nature, because it is obtained through the specific rules of evidence that apply in criminal proceedings, above all the presumption of innocence and the prosecutorial burden of proof. What has been established by a criminal court following a correct procedure can therefore be said to be more "credible" in terms of its truthfulness than the truth produced by journalism or history writing. For example, for those who would wish to deny the Srebrenica massacre, it may have been easier to do so when only journalistic and historical accounts of the 1995 event were available than it is today after the judgments of the ICTY in which two panels of judges (first the Trial Chamber and thereafter the Appeals Chamber) found the facts to be established.

This function of truth finding, and the contribution to history writing that results from this, may be one of the core missions for international criminal courts. In post conflict societies, different versions of the traumatic events often compete with each other. (2) It is extremely difficult for national courts in a post conflict society to make an unbiased assessment of these different versions, especially shortly after the events. This assessment is, however, a crucial factor in the process of transition. Without it, post conflict societies will have little more than "annals" of these traumatic events, produced by journalists and historians. (3)

Through the process of judicial fact finding, international criminal courts help to sort out competing accounts of traumatic events in a conflict situation and to determine the account that will count as the official history that society. For the victims, it makes a crucial difference: if their history is narrated by the journalists and historians only, it will never have the same cogency as when resulting from a judicial proceeding. In other words, a judicial proceeding helps to turn the...

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