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Serving justice on a global scale

A virtual court is in session every day on the most pressing and complex issues of human rights and international criminal law. And citizens from around the world have a front-row seat to watch some of the best legal minds make their strongest case from different perspectives, thanks to the work of a UCLA law professor and his students.

The Human Rights & International Criminal Law Online Forum started by law professor Richard Steinberg and his students two years ago has become a closely watched international “moot court” that more than 100,000 people from 190 countries have visited to read opinions on issues related to the International Criminal Court (ICC) written by top international jurists, legal scholars, lawyers and policymakers, as well as citizen activists.

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Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda and Professor Richard Steinberg at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
“Over two years, it has become the online community in the world for hosting this kind of dialogue,” Steinberg said. “We have 9,000 regular users who go on the site at least once a month for more than five minutes. And they come back repeatedly.”
With 122 state partners so far, the International Criminal Court, which is not part of the United Nations, is the first permanent, treaty-based court established to bring to justice the perpetrators of the most serious international crimes — genocide, mass rape and war crimes. Among the cases the prosecutor is currently investigating are four from the Democratic Republic of Congo; five cases from Darfur, Sudan; and one against Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi of Libya.

The question “Can the International Criminal Court sustain a conviction for the underlying crime of mass rape without the testimony from victims?” has generated the most discussion and debate, bringing in 36,000 users.  More than 26,000 people so far have reviewed legal responses to a question on whether investigators should look into alleged crimes committed during the 2008-09 Gaza conflict.    

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The forum won recognition as one of the world's Top Three Justice Innovations of 2012.
The forum’s success led an international jury on behalf of The Hague Institute for the Internationalisation of Law to select it as one of the world’s Top Three Justice Innovations of 2012. The award was based on the uniqueness of the forum, its potential impact and its sustainability. “The forum models openness and can set an example for other institutions trying to work with national courts to help them be more open to civil society,” commented jury chair Anne van Aaken, a scholar on law and economics as well as public, international and European law.

At a black-tie event in Washington, D.C. in June, Computerworld magazine will recognize the forum as one of its 2013 gold medal honors laureates in the category of “world good.”

Steinberg and his students, who are enrolled in his highly unusual law clinic that combines human rights, international law and technology, have a powerful partner in their web venture:  the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court based in The Hague.

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UCLA law students at The Hague after meeting with the prosecutor's senior staff.
Twice a year, Steinberg and his students travel to The Hague to meet with the prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda of Gambia, to learn what important questions of international criminal law are most pressing to her; they then work together to frame the questions for the forum in a way that is balanced and will elicit global online participation.

“Many of the decisions before the prosecutor at the ICC are precedent-setting for this young institution. So Fatou Bensouda, as did the former prosecutor before her, Luis Moreno Campo,  want to hear a lot of voices on these issues,” said Steinberg, whose interest in human rights law stems from his family background — his grandparents were Holocaust survivors. “A prosecutor can travel around the world, give talks and seek feedback — and they do. But the online forum is an efficient way to provide a kind of mooting of issues.”

The question that the forum is currently asking is this: Is the International Criminal Court targeting Africa inappropriately?
Students research issues to identify the best experts to write opinions. In this case, legal scholars from Yale, Temple and DePaul universities were tapped as well as the legal officer of the International Institute of Higher Studies in Criminal Sciences, a lead defense counsel of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the executive director of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa.

“We invite world-class experts – the very top people in the world – to give opinions, and then we throw it open to the public,” said Steinberg. “The comments we get are incredibly sophisticated. It actually can be somewhat intimidating for some to engage on this website.”

For students, who also write and post their opinions on every issue, the experience has been amazing, said law student Sandeep Prasanna. “We work alongside star international law scholars to develop recommendations and solutions. It's intellectually challenging (in the best way possible) to work on such high-level issues with an unusually influential and prominent organizational partner.

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Students visiting the Eastern Congo unexpectedly spotted Bosco Ntaganda, wanted by the ICC on charges that he forcibly conscripted child soldiers into his army. Known as the "Terminator," he was recently taken into custody.
“In many ways, the roster of people we have met in The Hague, as well as back home in Los Angeles, reads like a who's-who of international criminal law superstars,” Prasanna said.  “I'm glad I have gotten to benefit from the resources Professor Steinberg has made available at the law school. And all this time, my career focus has been getting clearer, in no small part, thanks to the clinic and its associated programs.”

Besides going to The Hague, Steinberg also feels strongly that students get a real-world view of the court’s role in places where some of the worst mass atrocities have occurred.

During the last two years, he has taken students to Bosnia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. During a trip in February 2012, they unexpectedly spotted Bosco Ntaganda, wanted by the ICC on charges that he forcibly conscripted child soldiers. He was recently taken into custody, coincidently when the students were visiting The Hague in March.

“These are the kinds of things that we normally only read about in the news — but there we were, in the center of the storm,” Prasanna said.

During their visit to the Congo, students worked on three research projects, all related to issues on the forum —to interview victims of mass atrocities on the topic of reparations, to discover why combatants disarm and demobilize and to identify the anthropological footprint of mass rape.

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Law students meet with elders of Bogoro, a village victimized by mass murder and mass rape.
“It’s actually harder than you think to prove that mass rape has occurred in a village,” said Steinberg. “The women who have to testify are not only traumatized, but severely stigmatized. So the prosecutor wants to prove mass rape by other means.”

Through interviews, students were able to measure statistically significant differences in social, economic, political and psychological criteria that distinguish villages that have experienced mass rape from those that haven’t. For example, the students’ study showed that villages where mass rape has occurred show radically higher levels of depression and PTSD, he said.

For people everywhere, the forum has become a one-of-a-kind channel that enables civil society to communicate directly with high-level legal authorities on important policy issues, said Steinberg. “Based on my conversations with the former and current prosecutors, they have told me they’ve been influenced by some of these debates.”

The forum is a product of the Office of the Prosecutor of the ICC and the UCLA School of Law’s Sanela Diana Jenkins Human Rights Project, established in 2009 by a generous gift from Sanela Diana Jenkins, who works on an ongoing basis with UCLA faculty and students to advance the cause of human rights and international justice around the world.

Jenkins grew up in Sarajevo and was a university student when war tore Yugoslavia apart. She escaped Sarajevo in 1993 by fleeing to Croatia, where she was a refugee for 18 months. Now living in Los Angeles, she has diverse business interests, including fashion and film.