And Justice For All

Jackson Center Hosts 11th Annual Humanitarian Law Dialogues

From left, Gregory Peterson leads a discussion regarding the prosecution of the members of the Khmer Rouge with international prosecutors Robert Petit, Andrew Cayley and Nicholas Koumjian at the 11th annual International Humanitarian Law Dialogues at the Robert H. Jackson Center on Sunday. P-J photo by Remington Whitcomb

Current and former prosecutors of international war crimes, lauded academics and law experts gathered alongside the public at the 11th annual Humanitarian Law Dialogues at the Robert H. Jackson Center earlier this week.

Each year, the event circumscribes the topic of contemporary international law, and promotes discussion as well as evaluation on that theme. Since its inaugural year in 2007, the event has been held at either the Chautauqua Institution or the Robert H. Jackson Center, except for 2016, when it was held in Nuremberg, Germany, in honor of the 70th anniversary of the Nuremberg Nazi Trials, for which Jackson was the impetus, and United States chief prosecutor.

The event, which ran from Sunday to Tuesday, began with the awarding of the Joshua Heintz Award for Humanitarian Achievement to Dr. Zainab Hawa Bangura of Sierra Leone. Dr. Bangura formerly served as the United Nations special representative of the Secretary-General on sexual violence in conflict, as well as the former Minister of Health and Foreign Minister of Sierra Leone.

However, due to the catastrophic mudslides in Sierra Leone that have recently left more than 1,000 dead, Dr. Bangura was unable to be present to accept her award. Aviva Abramovsky, Dean of the University at Buffalo School of Law, accepted the award on her behalf.

Abramovsky spoke with candor about her ardor for Dr. Bangura and her work.

Aviva Abramovsky accepts the Joshua Heintz Award for Humanitarian Achievement for Dr. Zainab Hawa Bangura from Joshua Heintz during the 11th annual International Humanitarian Law Dialogues at the Robert H. Jackson Center on Sunday.

“I can only hope that one day I will have done even a tenth of the service to deserve an award of this merit like (Dr. Bangura,)” said Abramovsky. “Because the truth of the matter is that I have not. And I am inspired and honored to be able to accept this award on her behalf.

As the first female dean of the UB School of Law, Abramovsky downplayed the significance of such an accomplishment, but admitted that it was her responsibility to discuss such a distinction while accepting an award of such magnitude for a woman who has fought all her life for the victims of sexual atrocities.

“We use metaphors,” said Abramovsky. “We use the words ‘sexual violence.’ We use the phrase ‘forced marriage.’ We use all different ways to say what we actually mean, which is slaver and rape. There is no such thing as marriage by force. These types of crimes fundamentally cut to the heart of society, which is distinct from even other types of violence, because it takes what should be the most intimate of relationships, what is the foundation of all societies: marriage, family, parenthood, home, love, heart and civilization, and it turns it inside-out. It reduces (a woman) to a body and a slave. For those reasons, it is important for us to remember to include women’s voices in the discussion of international rights.”

Following Abramovsky’s speech, a short video of Dr. Bangura was played, explaining the circumstances that kept her in Sierra Leone, and stating her appreciation for the award. A full transcript of her acceptance speech was distributed to the members of the audience.

As is customary, a discussion regarding contemporary international humanitarian law followed the presentation of the Joshua Heintz award. The topic was the fallout of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian genocide, and featured international prosecutors Robert Petit, Andrew Cayley and current Co-Prosecutor of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, Nicholas Koumjian. The discussion was led by Director and Co-Founder of the Robert H. Jackson Center Gregory Peterson.

During the roundtable, the group discussed the Khmer Rouge’s participation and execution of the Cambodian genocide, their own individual roles in the prosecution of the members of the Khmer Rouge and the difficulties and extraordinary circumstances encountered in the prosecution of the responsible, such as the inability of some of those responsible to stand trial due to disease and disability, including advanced dementia.

Furthermore, the group discussed how beyond the estimated 1.7 to 2.2 million who were tortured and murdered by the Khmer Rouge — roughly 25 percent of Cambodia’s population at the time — every single citizen of Cambodia was a victim in some way, shape or form.

They discussed, due to the advanced age of many of the responsible, how the window for justice is quickly closing, and they touched upon whether the financial cost of justice for the Cambodian people could have been mitigated, or whether the price of justice could even be defined