The future of international criminal justice

By: Henry Redwood


In December 2015 the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) delivered its final verdict with the “Butare” appeals judgement.  The trial had found that 6 defendants, including a mother and son, were responsible for the death, rape and suffering of tens of thousands people throughout Butare prefecture during the Rwandan genocide in 1994.  The case brought the Tribunal’s mandate to an end; a tribunal that had secured 75 sentences, cost the “international community” over $2 billion, and received much criticism along the way. By reflecting on how the Tribunal developed over its 21 year existence, this brief comment explores what the ICTR might tell us what we can expect for international criminal justice (ICJ) and the possible problems with the current ICJ project.

The ICTR was created within an international context filled with both hope and desperation. The end of the Cold War had ushered in a hope for peace in the world and that an “international community” (IC) might now genuinely be possible. In the early 1990s, however, the IC witnessed (and was complicit in) widespread violence, including in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. The response to these two conflicts was to create two ad hoc tribunals to bring to account those responsible for the violence. This decision was partly due to: i) the expectation that the resurrection of the “Nuremberg model” could assist these states transition to peaceful democracies as it had done after WW2; ii) the UN’s need to do something after standing by during the violence; and iii) because this was seen as the least costly response. These tribunals were quickly overloaded with expectations as they were also caught-up in the post-Cold War rhetoric of “humanitarianism” and the promises of the new ‘transitional justice’ (TJ) project, driven by the seeming success of TJ mechanisms (such as truth commissions) in Latin America.[1] As a result, these tribunals were believed to be able to do more than just deliver retributive justice, but were held to be able to “draw a line” under the past by uncovering the truth, and reconciling countries by offering a space where victims could tell their stories.[2]

As time went on these claims were increasingly questioned. Not only were other TJ mechanisms seen as being better positioned to achieve the goals of truth and reconciliation, but the rising costs and slow progress of the tribunals meant that critics increasingly questioned whether these tribunals could have any positive impact on transitioning societies at all.[3] These criticisms led to a shift in the way in which the ICTR understood its purpose and, indeed, how it ended up functioning. Whilst the early trials at the ICTR (see Akayesu) had greater concern for establishing a broad narrative of the violence that occurred in Rwanda and providing space for victims to testify, increasingly the tribunal became focused solely with producing trials that were quick and efficient (see Gatete).[4] The result was technocratic trials that were short and to the point. These trials increasingly were concerned with simply securing a verdict, rather than writing history or providing space for the witnesses to speak and with these changes Agamben’s claim that law is purely about the moment of judgement rather than any deeper notion of justice seemed increasingly to ring true.[5]

Over time, then, there was a move away from the initial ideas about the potential of ICJ, and with this also a re-articulation of what “justice” in international courts might look like (from a broader more inclusive conception of restorative justice to an increasingly legalistic and retributive one). This resulted in growing tension between the hopes and desires of those directly effected by the violence with the priorities of the legal apparatus. This was particularly visible in the ICTR’s relationship with its witnesses (often directly effected by the initial violence), who overtime became utilised simply to secure verdicts with little consideration of how the process might effect them or what they might have wanted from it.[6] This more technocratic approach to prosecutions, and the problems associated with it, has continued at the ICC, as victim parties’ requests are continually ignored by the court as it searches for quick and efficient trials.[7]

It might be argued that the ICJ is not cut out for the extra-judicial goals that were associated with international trials in the early 1990s. Indeed perhaps the types of trials that the ICTR was delivering at the end of its existence and that the ICC is producing now are more in line with what we should hope and expect ICJ to achieve. However, advocates of ICJ continue to make claims of the truth finding and reconciling potential of these courts when they need to legitimise the existence of the ICJ project, and as a result courts are too regularly seen as unproblematic sites of “truth telling” and societal rebuilding.[8] Besides the tensions that can arise from this as discussed above, there are two additional problems with this.

First, this continues to propagate the myth that it is possible to uncover the truth and that this can assist in reconciling societies, and prevents the recognition of the power-laden quality of all TJ mechanisms, and the truths they construct. If we accept this, then we are in a better position to understand what systems of power produce these mechanisms, and are therefore reproduced by them, and what effects this might have on those that encounter these mechanisms.

Second, these ideas of “truth telling” and “reconciliation” are also fed to donors and those effected by the violence, and lead to unsustainable expectations being created about what these trials can achieve, which only adds to the tension noted above.[9] Suggesting that ICJ can do everything other TJ mechanisms can do and more, then, prevents a more pluralist understanding of TJ from developing. Within a pluralist approach to TJ a wider variety of responses to violence are seen as viable, and a wider array of types of violence (beyond only violations of international criminal law) are seen as needing redress. If this occurs, there is the greater chance that more appropriate TJ mechanisms will be used to meet the needs of populations in the wake of violence. Perhaps more importantly still, those responsible for deciding what responses are needed in the aftermath of violence might start listening more to those that lived through the violence, and move past the currently legalistic understanding of post-conflict recovery that still holds criminal trials as the only  “just” response to atrocity.



Henry Redwood is a third year PhD student in the War Studies department and Senior Editor at Strife. His work engages with critical theory to explore how international courts construct truths and the normative underpinnings these project. Alongside his research Henry has previously worked at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and a number of (I)NGOs working in Rwanda. You can follow him on Twitter: @hred44





[1] P. Hazan, Judging War, Judging History: Behind Truth and Reconciliation, (Stanford; Stanford University Press, 2010), p. 16, p. 18, and p. 42; Ruti Teitel, Transitional Justice, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 72, pp. 74-75

[2] Richard Goldstone, ‘Justice as a Tool for Peace-Making: Truth Commissions and International Criminal Tribunals’, Journal of International Law and Politics, 28 (1995), pp. 485-504

[3] Martha Minow, ‘Making History or Making Peace: When Prosecutions Should Give Way to Truth Commissions and Peace Negotiations’, Journal of Human Rights, 7:2 (2008), 174-185.

[4] See ICTR Completion Strategy Reports to the UNSC, found here.

[5] Elizabeth Dauphinee, ‘War Crimes and the Ruin of Law’, Millennium-Journal of International Studies 37:1 (2008), p. 54

[6] See a report on this by REDRESS, here.

[7] Mariana Pena and Gaelle Carayon, ‘Is the ICC Making the Most of Victim Participation?’, The Journal of Transitional Justice, 7 (2013), p. 530

[8] See speeches made by the ICTR Prosecutor, here.

[9] Eric Stover, ‘Witnesses and the Promise of Justice’, in E. Stover and H. M. Weinstein (eds), My Neighbour, My Enemy: Justice and Community in the Aftermath of Mass Atrocity, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 104-120


Image Credit:

Share this

Copyright © 2019 Strife Blog. All Rights Reserved.

Designed by Kris Chan