The world of The Hague tribunals is a remarkably small and self-contained bubble. The courts aspire to have global effect, yet public engagement activities are still marginal to the courts’ work rather than being seen as a core function. On 30 May, The Hague Institute for Global Justice held a panel discussion on the changing means of communication that actors use in the international justice system.
The discussion featured Marten Youssef, a former journalist and spokesperson for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon; Thijs Bouwknegt, PhD candidate at the NIOD Institute for War, Genocide, and Holocaust Studies and former international justice reporter in The Hague; and Alpha Sesay, legal officer for international justice for the Open Society Justice Initiative. The discussion was part of the ongoing Supranational Criminal Law lecture series cohosted by the Grotius Centre at Leiden University, the Asser Institute, and the Coalition for the International Criminal Court. The audience was comprised of tribunal staff, students, and media.
Public engagement is key if international justice is to have any significant effect beyond The Hague. The courts must do more than speak; they must listen. Public engagement can occur through face-to-face meetings, social media, and interaction with journalists.
Media engagement is an obvious way to inform and educate the public about the work of the courts. But reportage on international criminal trials currently is highly variable, dependent largely on individual journalists’ abilities. According to Bouwknegt, reporters covering trials face several challenges:
- The rapid development of the field. There are new developments in the many simultaneously occurring trials almost every day.
- Complexity. Full understanding of the trials requires some knowledge of international criminal law, as well as the historical and political background of each situation.
- Limited access to tribunals and reliable information. There is much secrecy in international criminal trials, with many closed sessions and limited opportunities to speak to those involved.
The problems are compounded by journalists’ decreasing degree of specialization, as budget cuts in the media mean that journalists are increasingly tasked with covering multiple beats. Meanwhile, as the courts in The Hague have professionalized, messaging has become increasingly centralized and restrictive. As former BBC correspondent Geraldine Coughlan noted, “nobody talks to each other anymore.”
However, technology offers opportunities to bypass media gatekeepers and reach the public directly. Youssef noted that Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) press releases reach around seven hundred journalists while the STL Twitter account has nine thousand followers. In addition, the tribunal uses social media to actively engage with critics of the court. When a list of alleged STL witnesses was published by the newspaper Al-Akhbar, the STL responded quickly, using social media channels to refute the list’s accuracy, question the intentionsbehind publishing the list, and condemning the release of the list as “irresponsible and threatening to the lives of Lebanese citizens.” The courts need to follow the STL’s lead and respond to critics rather than passively absorbing criticism and allowing misinformation campaigns to gain traction. As Youssef argues, “sometimes you have to take the gloves off.”
Yet even the best media strategies are still disconnected from most of the countries where international crimes have occurred. Alpha Sessay notes that most people in these countries cannot follow the trials: They often have no electricity or television, and they may be illiterate. Overcoming such challenges demands more than media strategies; it requires public engagement efforts on the ground. To maximize the relevance and reach of international criminal justice, outreach activities must be vigorous and responsive to local contexts.