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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.
"Bring 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 to them.

War crimes? 

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 hall.

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 public opinion."

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 Brussels:
"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 (French-speaking section):

"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 this law."

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."

Trial run 

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 
Jean-François Berger is the ICRC editor of Red Cross, Red Crescent magazine.

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