When I applied for the IHRIP, I assumed that if I had the privilege of participating, I would likely find myself in Montreal or a far-flung destination such as Nairobi, Kampala, or Colombo. Months later, here I am in a steamy and air conditioning-less New York City bar, sipping on a cold beer and reflecting on the complexities of international law.
Since my arrival at Human Rights Watch, I’ve been supporting our International Justice team in conducting legal research on the trial of the September 28, 2009, massacre in Guinea. On that day, over a hundred and fifty people were killed, and some hundred women were raped in a brutal attempt by authorities to quell an opposition protest. In September 2022, a domestic trial f the crimes commenced in the country’s capital Conakry, to ensure accountability. Since the trial’s inception, HRW has kept a watchful eye on the proceedings, working with state and non-state domestic and international actors to ensure a fair and effective trial. The International Criminal Court (ICC), a complementarity-based court of last resort which only intervenes when states are unwilling or unable to prosecute, has also been monitoring the trial. The ICC, as well as separate organizations such as the United Nations and HRW, concluded that crimes against humanity had taken place during the massacre.
Toasting 25 years of the Rome Statute, the International Criminal Court’s founding statute, at UNHQ.
This is the first time the Guinean judicial system has faced a trial of this magnitude. The government has decided to apply Guinean domestic law rather than domestically incorporated international crimes such as “crimes against humanity” for reasons which do not remain wholly clear. This decision has its benefits, notably that renders moot debates about whether a law passed after the crimes were committed could be applied to prosecute the abuses. However, it could potentially create complications as the offenses charged may not capture the breadth and depth of the crimes.There are also many practical challenges, including ensuring witnesses who testify are protected, rights of the accused are respected, and that victims – who are civil parties – are able to participate in the proceedings.
Tackling such complex legal challenges, it seems, requires a particular type of individual. From the lawyers in the courtroom in Conakry, to my colleagues at HRW, I observe that this work requires persistence, fortitude, mindfulness, and skill.
An eerie view from the office, as smoke from the forest fires in Canada descends on New York City.
I am grateful to be able to learn from such expert advocates here in New York, and I look forward to continuing to bask in the discomfort and complexity of the field of international human rights law. After all, it’s important to remember that hard things are hard for a reason. Usually, they are hard because they matter. While the space of international human rights law is daunting, the team here at HRW has been a shining example that a career dedicated to this type of work is worth striving for.