For one week this past September 2008, I and one other Maryland Judge, Judge Cathy Hollenberg Serrette, by coincidence also from the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County, had the honor and the pleasure of participating with a group of other Judges from around this country as well as South America in the Fourth Sir Richard May Seminar on International Law and International Courts. This seminar was conducted at The Hague, Netherlands, a unique and captivating city known at times as a “Special City”, or “The Hague as Judicial Capital of the World”. However the most accurate and the most recent description which best comports with the indelible impression that I and other participants came away with after our whirlwind learning experience for the six days we were there is-“The City of Peace, Security and Justice”.
The Program was sponsored by the International Judicial Academy (IJA) which is a non-profit educational institution chartered in the District of Columbia in 1998. Its stated mission is to provide high quality education programs for judges, court administrators, and other legal professionals from countries around the world so they can “function in a modern, fair, efficient, accessible, and transparent court system”.
Other sponsors were the JEHT Foundation, The American Society of International Law, and the Atlantic and Pacific Exchange Program. The JEHT Foundation stands for the core values that underlie the Foundation’s mission: Justice, Equality, Human Dignity and Tolerance. It seeks to “expand the constructive role that the U.S. can play in promoting international justice, human rights and the rule of law at home and abroad”.
The American Society of International Law founded in 1906 and chartered by Congress in 1950 “fosters the study of international law and promotes the establishment and maintenance of international relations on the basis of law and justice”.
Finally, The Atlantic and Pacific Exchange Program is a Dutch-American non-profit organization which organizes high-level international study programs for senior and mid-level government officials, business executives, journalists, and academics. It consists of two jointly operating foundations, one headquartered in Rotterdam, The Netherlands and the other located in Washington D.C. The Program does not attempt to sell any political philosophy or idea, i.e. it is completely neutral in this regard.
The experience which this distinguished group of sponsors put together for us was intense and ran from 8:30 am to at least 5:00 pm on all but one day. We visited almost every international tribunal and organization and the beautiful and functional buildings which house them in The Hague. They included the International Court of Justice located in the Peace Palace, The Hague Conference on Private International Law, The Special Court for Sierra Leone where we observed a portion of the ongoing trial of Charles Taylor, the former head of Liberia charged with among other crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, the work of the Organization or Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), The Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal as well as the Asser Institute and the Hague Forum for Judicial Expertise. We also toured the facilities and were briefed by a Judge, Prosecutor and Defense Counsel of both the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Court (ICC). In addition, we observed a portion of the trial of the former Deputy of the now deceased Sloban Milosovic who was representing himself by choice. All proceedings in those courts are translated in real-time into both French and English.
Without exception the people who briefed us were knowledgeable and of many races and nationalities. They were enthusiastic about their work as well as hopeful that their jobs are meaningful and their missions will be achieved and thereby will produce a better, more peaceful and tolerant world through the application of the rule of law and communications between nations and their representatives. Their presentations uniformly reflected what appeared to be a common mindset among them that to be realistic does not require that they abandon their ideals. Conversely none of them appeared to be defensive about their work, their city and the future of their organizations, and tribunals despite some of the world’s skepticism, particularly that of the U.S. about their value. Leadership in these organizations appeared to be awarded strictly on the basis of experience, intelligence, and industry and without reference to gender, race, or nationality.
The exposure to these international institutions and the competent and dedicated people who make them work as well as they do gave me new hope. It seemed like a world and good works far apart from what I knew existed or understood and appreciated before I flew into Amsterdam that Sunday, September 21. We were greeted by mostly sunny days at The Hague, Netherlands despite being told before we arrived that it rains there almost every day. I must confess though that the one afternoon that we had off literally and figuratively punctuated with an exclamation point the new spirit of hope for the future that I found on this trip.
On that one afternoon off while we were at The Hague, a group of Judges travelled by train to Amsterdam. There, besides taking a boat tour of that beautiful city, we visited the Anne Frank House which reminded us of the horrors that men are capable of inflicting on each other in the name of race, religion and ethnicity. This is of course what the institutions and people that we were learning about are working to prevent. It is also what can happen and still happens- genocide and crimes against humanity when these institutions and people fail to institutionalize the application of the rule of law across the globe. This point was brought home in poignant visuals and words. After walking through that house and witnessing through Anne Franks eyes and writing the horrors visited upon her and her family, we left the house. The last quote you read as you exit is by Primo Levi, a writer and Auschwitz survivor who wrote in 1986- “one single Anne Frank moves us more that the countless others who suffered just as she did, but whose faces have remained in the shadows. Perhaps it is better that way, if we were capable of taking in all the suffering of all those people, we would not be able to live”.
Thank God, The Hague is working to enable us to live on and is shaping history and our hopes for the future. Have a Happy Thanksgiving.