Research Project
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Research Project

The “When Justice Is Done” project is a university based research project conducted under the auspices of the Center for International Criminal Justice at the VU University Amsterdam. It is run by two senior researchers, Joris van Wijk and Barbora Hola. Each year, a number of students from the selective Master programme International Crimes and Criminology are selected to assist as Junior Researchers.

The project “When Justice Is Done” (WJID) aims to empirically analyze what happens to persons who have been acquitted or convicted by international criminal courts and tribunals. It aims to spark more interest on this so far neglected aspect of international criminal justice and explores opportunities to improve currently applied policies.

1 Int Criminal Tribunals 4Perpetrators of international crimes such as genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes are often denoted as “hostis humanis generis” – enemies of all mankind. Over the past decades, international(ized) criminal tribunals such as the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) or the permanent International Criminal Court (ICC) together tried over 150 perpetrators of international crimes. Over 120 individuals have been convicted while 30 have been acquitted.

The WJID project aims to analyze to what extent the empirical reality of post-trial life reflects on the legitimacy and effectiveness of these international courts. Therefore, four sets of research questions will be answered:

• What are the goals of (i) international criminal tribunals and (ii) international punishment?

• Under what prison conditions do international prisoners serve their sentences?

• What happens to the convicted and acquitted by international tribunals after their release/acquittal?

• How could international sentence enforcement and post-release system be improved to better promote the goals?

Convicted Individuals

As of July 2013, the ICTY, ICTR and the SCSL have together convicted and sentenced 121 persons (69 at the ICTY, 44 at the ICTR and 8 at the SCSL) for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The sentences delivered by the tribunals differ very much. The ICTR and SCSL in general handed out more severe sentences compared to the ICTY. This is clear looking not only at the more frequent imposition of life sentence at the ICTR (14 life sentences (31,8%) compared to two life sentences at the ICTY (2,9%)) but also at lengthier determinate sentences at the ICTR and SCSL. The average determinate sentence at the ICTY is 14,84 years, while at the ICTR and SCSL it is 21,9 years and 37 years respectively.

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The majority of individuals convicted by the tribunals serves imprisonment in many countries around Europe or Africa designated by the tribunals to enforce their sentences. Since there is no international prison, the tribunals “outsourced” imprisonment to the countries willing to help them out. It is largely unknown under what conditions these ‘international prisoners’ are incarcerated.

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International judges are often criticized for leniency of their sentences especially in light of the gravity of crimes tried before them. It is thus remarkable that the vast majority of convicts have not served their full sentences. As of July 2013, 55 persons (45% of the persons convicted by the Tribunals) have already been released. Of these, 46 individuals (84% of the released) have been granted an early release generally after having served 2/3 of their imprisonment term. The only nine individuals who have served the totality of their sentence are usually defendants convicted for relatively low sentences. Given the fact that international trials are pretty lengthy, they actually served their whole sentence during trial.


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Therefore, many convicts have already returned back to their countries of origins or sought refuge elsewhere. After their release, ex-international prisoners are off the radar of the international community and nobody really knows how they reintegrate back to (their) societies or what their post-release life looks like. No supervision and no assistance is offered to them despite the fact that many of them had been “out of touch with reality” for more than a decade during their detention and incarceration at the tribunals. To find out more, click here..

Acquitted Individuals

The acquitted persons are theoretically free to return back to their countries of origin. That is generally the case at the ICTY where many of them are welcomed as war heroes upon their return. However, the picture is diametrically different for the ones acquitted by the ICTR. Since they fear persecution, further prosecution or discrimination upon their return in Rwanda and in many cases no other country is willing to welcome them, some end up “stuck” in Arusha in a limbo situation. They are “acquitted but not free”. To find out more, click here..

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