Ignorance is no excuse
by Jean-François Berger
The date: Tuesday 5 April. The venue: the court of Appeal of
the Palais de Justice in Brussels. The trial of an alleged
war criminal is about to get under way.
in the defendant!" calls the presiding judge. Tall and
emaciated, his skin waxen and his eyes hidden behind dark glasses,
Roman Mannuscry (a fictitious name and pun on the french word
for a novel's manuscript) quietly greets the assembled court.
The packed audience watches his every move. Mannuscry steps
into the dock. The judges well understand their responsibility.
They must rule on a verdict by which Mannuscry was previously
acquitted. For the defendant, it is all or nothing.
In a monotone voice, the presiding judge solemnly recalls the
facts. Mannuscry, former mayor of Epigram, is suspected of committing
serious crimes against the rural Plumitif community. These crimes
constitute grave violations of humanitarian law. He is accused
in particular of having created and armed local militias and
of taking part in the forced transfer of Plumitif residents
to other villages. These displaced people were subsequently
detained in appalling conditions in internment camps guarded
by government forces and were also subjected to torture. To
make matters worse, humanitarian organizations were denied access
The public prosecutor, in his concluding remarks, strives
to demonstrate the defendant's guilt and calls for his conviction
for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide. On hearing
these words, Mannuscry remains stone-faced. Now it is the
turn of the defence, a young and fiery lawyer who pleads for
her client's acquittal on the basis of the merits of the case
and the court's lack of competence rationae temporis.
Developing a subtle argument, the defence lawyer urges the
court to consider the acts of the accused person in light
of the rule of law prevailing at the time and the security
constraints inherent in an internal conflict. The presiding
judge listens attentively. He requests further clarification
from the two lawyers, who indulge in one last heated exchange.
Then the judges withdraw to deliberate. Almost instantaneously,
the sound of clapping reverberates through the courtroom.
The law no doubt has its theatrical moments, but this emphatic
burst of applause seems somewhat out of place, accompanied
as it is by an air of suppressed mirth on the faces of the
judges and the defendant. The Master of Ceremonies, Vincent
Stainier from the Belgian Red Cross, takes the microphone
and announces that refreshments will be served in the central
The right to speak
The court in the simulated trial was made up of Belgian and
international legal experts, while the litigants were from
the Free University of Brussels and the Catholic University
of Louvain. Here are some of their comments:
Damien Vandermeersch, examining magistrate of the District
of Brussels Court of First Instance: "Humanitarian
law not only concerns specialists. The simulated trial is
an opportunity to show the wider public that this body of
law and respect for it are everybody's business, even if it
is extremely difficult to bring people who violate it to justice.
Despite the existence of the Statute of the International
Criminal Court, one should bear in mind that the primary responsibility
for repression of war crimes rests with states. Secondary
responsibility lies with the International Court, even if
its vocation could still evolve under pressure from international
Chantal Domboué, law student (third year):
"This competition has been a long-term project, and we
have been working on it for three months, including the preselection
phase. We also had to delve more deeply into the jurisprudence
of the tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. The
simulation exercise is a formidable challenge, which requires
the best we can give."
Eric David, professor of law at the Free University of
"Although humanitarian law is far from being one of the
fundamental courses in law studies, students' interest in
the subject is remarkable. I think that when ideologies collapse,
humanitarian law is the refuge for certain values which brook
no compromise. Behind the motivation is the need for an ideal,
which is also encompassed by human rights."
Isabelle Kuntziger, head of legal service, Belgian Red Cross
"Promoting repression is not the job of the Red Cross.
But since the Red Cross was central in launching and developing
humanitarian law, it has a duty to ensure the promotion of
Christophe Swinarski, ICRC legal expert:
"The Belgian Red Cross, which has been a leading light
in the promotion of international humanitarian law in recent
years, must be congratulated on its initiative."
Noémie Bulinckx, law student (third year), prizewinner:
"In the first year of our degree, we deal with the law
of nations and our knowledge of humanitarian law is relatively
limited. However, we can adapt what we have learnt pretty
quickly to the problematics of humanitarian law. In practice,
however, the real scope and impact of the International Criminal
Court are dependent on the political interests of states,
which is quite restrictive in terms of its universality."
The Mannuscry affair is in fact a simulated trial, an international
humanitarian law competition, which serves as a testing ground
for law students from the universities of Brussels and Louvain.
Taking part in a practical exercise of this kind helps the
students to familiarize themselves with international norms
and how they have evolved since the creation in July 1998
of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
Credit for the 'trial trial' - an exercise already well established
in Russia and several English-speaking countries - lies with
the French-speaking section of the Belgian Red Cross, which
is repeating the experience for a second year. Placed under
the patronage of Princess Astrid, president of the Belgian
Red Cross, the contest is fully in keeping with the mission
of the National Society, which has set itself the statutory
objective of "promoting the principles of the Movement
and of international humanitarian law". The Flemish-speaking
community has undertaken similar educational projects in secondary
schools and law faculties. Initiatives such as these demonstrate
how creative teaching methods can be used to transmit basic
knowledge of humanitarian law in a lively and entertaining
manner. The crowds in the Brussels courtroom were not deceived.
With so much interest generated, the Belgian Red Cross may
well repeat the exercise next year, this time with an international
selection of contestants.
Jean-François Berger is the ICRC editor of Red Cross, Red Crescent
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