Outreach, In-Reach or Beyond Reach? Lessons Learned from Hybrid Courts

Originally published on Justice in Conflict as part of the Hybrid Justice – A Justice in Conflict Symposium series.

In this sixth instalment in our ongoing symposium on Hybrid JusticeEva Ottendoerfer joins JiC for this post on the critical role of outreach in hybrid tribunals. Eva is a Post-Doc Fellow at the chair for international institutions and peace processes at Goethe-University Frankfurt. She has done research in Sierra Leone, Timor-Leste and at the Trust Fund for Victims at the ICC. The topics she works on are the contestation and localisation of international norms in the field of transitional justice and the design and implementation of reparation programmes.

Outreach has been identified as a crucial function of international criminal tribunals, a means to ensure that the purpose of prosecuting those most responsible for mass crimes is well understood by affected communities and to prevent false rumours about the proceedings from spreading. While hybrid tribunals in most cases have the advantage of being located in-country, this does not automatically mean that they are better at reaching out to the population. Accordingly, a communications strategy via the media is insufficient in making sure that people will be able to follow (and understand) the proceedings. Instead, as the International Center for Transitional Justice argues in its guidelines on outreach, it is necessary to establish structures for a direct engagement with the population and to find culturally sensitive ways of communicating the message that justice is being done. Still, the question remains: how should outreach be designed and organised and what roles can it fulfil for a hybrid tribunal?

Tribunals have developed their own understanding of outreach which differ with regard to: what messages should be communicated communicate; whom to address with outreach; and how to communicate with the identified target groups. A conservative model of outreach limits its functions to a mere provision of information about the court, its mandate, and the proceedings to those affected by massive human rights violations. This represents a one-way street of communication. A more holistic model allows a broader educative function of outreach, going beyond the provision of information and instead aiming at the communication of the principles of rule of law and their function in a democratic society. It accordingly addresses a broader range of segments of society and also provides an interactive forum for dialogue in which opinions and ideas are communicated back to the court. This gives people a voice and agency in making their input reach back into the court.

Both of these approaches have already been applied in hybrid tribunals. The outreach section of the Special Panels for Serious Crimes in Timor-Leste was put in place in 2003, three years after the establishment of the tribunal. It consisted of one person and was instituted under the investigation unit of the tribunal. The section was based in Dili and undertook trips to the rural areas — together with the investigation unit — to meet people in community meetings. These only started to take place on a regular basis in 2005. At the same time, outreach efforts drew a one-sided picture of the court’s aims and mandate. Any cooperation with NGOs to compensate for the lack of staff and equipment was difficult since the leading East Timorese NGOs rejected the work of the hybrid tribunal and demanded the establishment of an international ad hoc tribunal instead.

The Special Court for Sierra Leone, in contrast, conducted outreach from its inception. During the Court’s first year, the first chief prosecutor, David Crane, and the first registrar, Robin Vincent, travelled across the country and organized townhall meetings. In the second year, an outreach section was established under the registry and set up district offices across the country, staffed with people who spoke local languages. Apart from providing information for affected communities, meetings also took place with stakeholders such as local chiefs and the media, as well as with school children and university students. Outreach events not only focused on providing information about the court’s proceedings but also on general principles of rule of law. The first head of the outreach section, Binta Masaray, was a well-connected member of Sierra Leone’s civil society and set up a strong network with civil society organisations. This contributed to effective engagement with the wider population. A Special Court Interactive Forum also served as a dialogue forum in which civil society representatives could exchange their views and opinions with the court’s staff. 

However, the section also faced some difficulties. Due to the court’s precarious funding situation, the management of the court cut the section’s budget at half in 2003, forcing it to seek funding from outside donors — a task that diverted resources from the section’s actual mandate. In addition, the question remains as to what the outreach section was able to achieve. While different surveys agree on the fact that it was able to make the court known to the population, contradicting results exist about how far the court was able to effectively communicate how it works and to have an impact on the rule of law situation in the country. An in-depth study by Gerhard Anders has pointed out that, in some cases, people were unwilling to buy into the court’s argumentation despite extensive outreach. The most well-known case was the prosecution of Sam Hingga Norman, the commander of the Civil Defense Forces, a militia that enjoyed great support among the large parts of the civilian population since it had defended the capital Freetown against the major rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front. When Norman died in custody, rumours about his politically motivated murder could not be prevented.

From the discussed examples, some lessons learned for future outreach can be drawn.

  • For communicating principles of neutrality and the rule of law, it is important that outreach is placed under a neutral organ of the court such as the registry and is not one-sidedly connected with an organ that takes a position in trial.
  • A structure of district offices with staff that speak the local languages has proven helpful in establishing a long-term relationship with communities across the country. However, such an endeavour can be seriously hampered by the security situation in the respective country.
  • While it would be laudable to receive funding directly from the tribunal, the precarious situation of most hybrid tribunals makes such a model highly unrealistic. Instead, the outreach sections of future hybrid tribunals will most likely be forced to attract funding from outside donors and such considerations should be included in the section’s conception from the outset.
  • A strong network of civil society organisations who contribute to outreach is crucial to compensate for any lack of resources and staff. In addition, civil society organisations often already have long-term relationships with victim communities and are therefore better able to create trust in the court’s work.
  • Outreach still relies heavily on an effective court that produces decisions in a timely manner which are at least to some extent comprehensible to the population in order to prevent any disillusionment with the justice provided.

This last caveat notwithstanding, a consensus exists by now that justice needs to be seen to be done and needs to be discussed and engaged with to have an impact on the respective post-conflict society. This idea has obviously also taken hold in the most recently established hybrid tribunal, the Special Criminal Court (SCC) in the Central African Republic (CAR). Only half a year after the Special Prosecutor was named in February 2017, the court organised its first outreach events — mainly in the capital of Bangui, but also in two other towns: Bambari and Bossangora. It also published a guide for outreach for civil society organisations in which it defines the tasks of increasing the understanding of the SCC and its judicial processes as well as engaging in an open dialogue with the whole population about the role of the court in promoting the rule of law in CAR. However, the devastating security situation in the country will make it very difficult to engage with communities outside the capital on a long-term basis. Therefore, it is even more important to include local civil society organisations into outreach from the outset. More than anything, what SCC outreach in CAR and other situations need, are tribunals that work effectively and produce accountability, something that the people in the CAR and elsewhere have been waiting for a long time.

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