‘ICC at 10’ Conference Honors Legacy of Whitney R. Harris, Marks International Criminal Court’s Decade of Work

The Whitney R. Harris World Law Institute recently honored the life and legacy of its namesake with a two-day conference celebrating the 10th anniversary of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The conference—which brought more than 250 prominent academics and others to the law school—opened with an art installation by Monika Weiss of the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts. Staged in the Crowder Courtyard, the “site-specific” interactive piece recognized the more than 181 million people worldwide damaged by genocides, holocausts, and war during and since World War I.

“The meaning of this conference is very dear to me—especially the fact that it honors Whitney R. Harris and the past 10 years of the ICC,” Weiss told conference participants.

Leila Sadat, the Henry H. Oberschelp Professor of Law and director of the Harris Institute, not only organized the conference and but also moderated a session on challenges and opportunities in the building of the ICC that included Sara Criscitelli, prosecution coordinator in the ICC’s  Office of the Prosecutor.

In her opening remarks, Sadat noted that this year would have been Harris’s 100th. He died in 2010 after a long life devoted to world peace and ending impunity for those who perpetrate acts of genocide and war crimes.

“Whitney dedicated his life to making the world a better place,” Sadat said, noting that it was also significant that the conference began on Veterans Day in the United States and Poppy Day in the United Kingdom.

As a young U.S. Navy lieutenant in 1945, Harris was one of the original prosecutors in the Nuremberg trials following World War II. He remained committed to preserving the Nuremberg legacy throughout his life and, with Sadat and others, was an NGO delegate to the 1998 Rome Conference for the treaty establishing the ICC.

In his keynote address, His Excellency Ambassador Stephen Rapp echoed Sadat’s statements about Harris, saying that Nuremberg was just the beginning of the world’s cry to end atrocities. Since Nuremberg, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), and ICC have demonstrated the power of state support for those who work in the cause of justice.

“We’re not there yet, but we are much closer because of the work of Whitney Harris and others,” Rapp said. “The day will arrive when justice will be possible for victims of mass atrocities everywhere in the world.”

His Excellency Judge Hans-Peter Kaul of the ICC, after calling the symposium “the most important conference on the ICC this year,” continued the theme of Nuremberg as the pioneer in the quest for world peace. He also shared the friendship he enjoyed with Whitney Harris after meeting him as a member of the German delegation to the Rome Conference. Among the many legacies of Nuremberg, Kaul noted that its promise of “equal justice for all under the law” in particular has had a lasting impact.

“At Nuremberg, the British called for the execution of all German officers without trial. The Soviets expressed the belief that an impartial judge would lead to delays. But the Americans, represented by Whitney Harris, insisted that if Nuremberg was to be more than a mere exercise of victims’ justice, it had to guarantee justice for all, even the Nazi leadership,” Kaul said.

The second day of the conference was devoted to the hard work and dedication it has taken to build the ICC over the past 10 years. Her Excellency Judge Joyce Aluoch, president of the ICC’s Trial Chamber, started the day by describing the complex process that must be followed to assure that defendants are treated fairly.

For example, in the case The Prosecutor v. Abdallah Banda Abakaer Nourain and Saleh Mohammed Jerbo Jamus, language was one barrier to justice. The defendants, Banda and Jerbo, speak Zaghawa, which is not a written language and consists of only 5,000 words. However, Aluoch said, the ICC requires that trials be conducted in a language that the accused person “fully understands.” For Banda and Jerbo to receive a fair trial, thousands of pages of trial documents had to be painstakingly translated into Zaghawa so that they would understand the charges against them. 

Following Aluoch’s speech, conference participants took part in sessions regarding the challenges and opportunities presented by the ICC and the court’s early jurisprudence before hearing another distinguished speaker, His Excellency Ambassador Hans Corell, former under-secretary-general for legal affairs and the legal counsel of the United Nations.

Fittingly, Corell’s remarks focused on the importance of the rule of law—the principle that encompasses both Kaul’s need to give even the most notorious their “day in court” and Aluoch’s comments about going to great measures to ensure that defendants understand the charges against them in their own language.

“All persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the state itself, are accountable to just, fair, and equitable laws and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law,” Corell said. He also issued “a plea to the member states of the UN that they bring into fruition the Crimes Against Humanity Initiative”—the Harris Institute’s more than three-year project that resulted in a proposed international convention regarding crimes against humanity.

A roundtable discussion, titled “The United States and the ICC in the Decades Ahead,” followed, moderated by Melissa Waters, vice dean and professor of law. It addressed the United States’ troubled history with the ICC under President George W. Bush, going back to 2000 when advisor John Bolton worked to “deactivate” the U.S.’s signature on the Rome Statute creating the ICC.

The public portion of the two-day conference closed with a panel on the future directions of the court.

“The fact that such a diverse group of legal scholars, policy makers, diplomats, and others would travel to St. Louis to participate in this celebration of Whitney R. Harris’s life and the ICC is a meaningful testament to his legacy,” Sadat said. “I am grateful to all who participated in this wonderful symposium.”

For more information, view the conference website.


By Timothy J. Fox