WCRO 2021 Annual Update

As we approach the end of the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the War Crimes Research Office (WCRO) continues to advance human rights and accountability for atrocity crimes across the globe. Despite challenges presented by the pandemic, the WCRO continues to serve as a critical resource for tribunals and organizations dedicated to combating impunity and to offer students unparalleled opportunities to engage in projects that advance accountability for atrocity crimes. Indeed, 2021 has been an exciting year for the Office, bringing new opportunities for international collaboration and impactful advocacy.

Red Latinoamericana de Litigio Estratégico en Género

For instance, this year, WCRO’s Director Susana SáCouto joined co-director of WCL’s Academy for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law (the Academy), Claudia Martin, and attorneys specializing in gender and international criminal justice, Daniela Kravetz and Dalila Seoane, to found The Latin American Network for Gender-based Strategic Ligitation (Red Latinoamericana de Litigio Estratégico en Género, ReLeG in Spanish) as a way to both advocate and strengthen accountability efforts for gender-based crimes in Latin America, and to disseminate and exchange best practices for litigation across the region.

Read more about the partnership, and a report published by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, in collaboration with the WCRO, the Academy, and the Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies of Leiden University, which laid a foundation for the advocacy work of the group.

In addition, the WCRO promoted accountability for atrocity crimes by:

  • Submitting an amicus curiae brief in the Maya Achi case on behalf of survivors of sexual violence perpetrated during Guatemala’s internal armed conflict. In the brief, WCRO Director Susana SáCouto and the Academy’s co-director Claudia Martín argued that international evidentiary standards applicable to conflict-related sexual violence should be applied in this case.

Policy on Cultural Heritage
  • Joining Professor Diane Orentlicher in submitting comments to the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor on the Court’s Draft Policy on Cultural Heritage. The professors’ comments urged the explicit inclusion of “archives” in the ICC’s conception of cultural heritage, as archives have played an indispensable role in advancing transitional and historical justice.

  • Joining a group of experts on gender and international criminal law to submit amicus curiae briefs in the ICC case Prosecutor v. Ongwen, addressing issues related to forced pregnancy, evidentiary standards in cases of sexual and gender-based violence, sexual slavery, and cumulative convictions. The case represents the first convictions for forced pregnancy and forced marriage before the ICC.

    Read more about the Ongwen Case currently on appeal at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

  • Working with UN Women, the Academy, and a civil society group in Guatemala to memorialize the legal and political strategies used in the Sepur Zarco case, a groundbreaking prosecution that held perpetrators accountable for - and provided redress to indigenous victims of - sexual violence, sexual slavery and domestic slavery committed during Guatemala’s civil war.

  • Partnering with the Open Society Justice Initiative and the Comisión Mexicana de Defensa y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos (CMDPDH) in Mexico to increase accountability for crimes against humanity and corruption taking place in the context of the fight against organized crime in Mexico.

To advance education and scholarship in the field of international criminal law, the WCRO:

  • Organized and held the 15th Annual Summer Law Program in The Hague, providing students from WCL and other U.S. law schools an opportunity to learn among the practitioners, courts, and tribunals that are making history today.

    Tom Ruys
    “This course handled a very complex topic, which, ordinarily, might make for a difficult [session]. However, [the guest lecturer’s] use of breakout rooms and problems really helped comprehension. Overall, one of the best [sessions] of the week.”

    The Summer Law Program in The Hague is the product of a unique collaboration between the War Crimes Research Office (WCRO) of American University’s Washington College of Law and the T.M.C. Asser Institute, one of the most prominent research institutes of international law in Europe. In addition to an intensive and dynamic 6-credit course of study in International Criminal Law and Counterterrorism, the Program offers students the opportunity to network with leading practitioners and experts in these fields through guest lectures, site visits to Hague-based institutions shaping these fields, a networking panel, and intercultural exchanges. Although the COVID-19 pandemic meant the Program was offered virtually, students raved about the lecturers, site visits and other exchanges:

Judge Fausto Pocar
“This was an amazing lecture. It was great to hear how a domestic system is prosecuting international crimes. We often hear in study about the possibility of this happening, but rarely see how it works out in reality.”
International Criminal Court
“This was one of the best virtual visits because they were able to not only explain how they got to this point in their career, but what the daily activities of their positions consist of.”
Eric Iverson
Students in conversation with Eric Iverson (WCL ’06), ICC trial attorney, and other practitioners
  • Benjamin Ferencz
    “This was the true highlight of the course. Meeting Benjamin Ferencz was both a career and life-affirming moment…. This was a moving speech and I feel so honoured to hear from the person who [prosecuted Nazi war criminals at] Nuremberg [and] actually investigated the camps. Thank you to the organizers [for] making this happen.”

    The Summer Program’s rapid and successful pivot to a digital format enabled Benjamin Ferencz, the last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor, at the age of 101, to join students for a virtual discussion of his long career in international criminal law and the lessons he has learned over a lifetime of practice. The opportunity to engage directly with Mr. Ferencz demonstrates the unique benefits of this year’s virtual format.

    Mr. Ferencz encouraged today’s advocates for international justice to “never give up, never give up, never give up!”

    Watch the recording.

  • Hosted our annual War Crimes Speaker Series and participated in a number of events on current issues in ICL:

    • Panel on Careers in the Litigation of Serious Human Rights & Humanitarian Law Violations

      Panel on Careers in the Litigation of Serious Human Rights & Humanitarian Law Violations

      On February 3, WCRO Director SáCouto moderated a panel discussion with WCL alumni to explore career opportunities in criminal and civil litigation of serious human rights and humanitarian law violations. SáCouto was joined by legal practitioners with decades of experience in the sector to discuss their personal career trajectories and to answer current students’ questions on how best to pursue similar work.

      Read more about the panel discussion and watch the recording.

    • Panel on the U.S. Approach to International Justice in the Biden Administration

      On February 9, WCRO and the International & Comparative Legal Studies Program held a panel discussion to address the challenges and opportunities in international justice under the Biden Administration, including U.S. engagement with the ICC, hybrid tribunals, and other investigative and prosecutorial mechanisms.

      Read more about the speakers.

    • Conference on Reparations for Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law

      On March 17, WCRO Director Susana SáCouto participated in a conference that brought together 15 legal experts from around the world to discuss reparations to compensate victims of gross violations of international human rights law. Among the various challenges identified by speakers were (1) the legal framework within which the reparations are established; (2) the nature and scope of measures required to fully repair violations; and (3) the effectiveness of international orders providing reparations.

      Read a full summary of the topics discussed at the conference.

    • A Series: Diagnosing Gender Justice in Latin America

      In the fall semester, the WCRO and the Academy convened a series of panel discussions on Diagnosing Gender Justice in Latin America, examining achievements and challenges in the ongoing effort to achieve justice for victims of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in Latin America. Professors Claudia Martín and Susana SáCouto participated in the series of four panel discussions that were held in partnership with the Latin American Network for Gender-based Strategic Litigation (ReLeG).

      • Panel I: SGBV in Peru

        Panel I: SGBV in Peru

        On October 12, WCRO and the Academy convened the first panel in the series to discuss progress and challenges in the ongoing effort to achieve justice for victims of SGBV in Peru, including efforts to bring justice to victims of forced sterilization committed by the state under the Fujimori regime; the prosecution of soldiers for SGBV against indigenous women in the Manta and Vilca communities; the effort to redress SGBV against women in Chumbivilcas, Peru; and the Los Cabitos case addressing SGBV perpetrated by the military.

        Watch the recording.

      • Panel II: SGBV & the Dictatorship in Uruguay

        Panel II: SGBV & the Dictatorship in Uruguay

        The second panel, held on October 26, addressed victims’ ongoing fight for justice following widespread gender-based violence perpetrated by the state during the Uruguayan dictatorship in the 1970s and ‘80s. Moderator Claudia Martín was joined by experts Adriana Buenaventura, Ana Rosa Amorós Alonso Balado, Flor de María Meza Tananta, María Noel Leoni, and Juan Raúl Williman.

        Watch the recording.

      • Panel III: SGBV in the Guatemalan Civil War

        Panel III: SGBV in the Guatemalan Civil War

        The third panel was held on November 9 and addressed SGBV against indigenous women during the Guatemalan conflict. Participants provided updates on the ongoing cases of Emma Molina Theissen, the Maya Achi women, and the Maya Ixil Genocide case. Moderator Susana SáCouto was joined by legal specialists Lucía Xiloj, Alejandro Rodríguez, and Mynor Melgar.

        Watch the recording.

      • Panel IV: Prosecuting SGBV in the Colombian Conflict

        Panel IV: Prosecuting SGBV in the Colombian Conflict

        In the fourth and final panel discussion of the series, experts assessed the progress achieved in obtaining justice for SGBV victims of the Colombian conflict and the challenges that still remain five years after a peace agreement was signed.

        Watch the recording.

  • Published on critical issues of accountability, including:

    • UN Agora Blog on The ICC’s New Chief Prosecutor

      UN Agora Blog on The ICC’s New Chief Prosecutor

      In recognition of the International Day of Democracy on September 15, the UN Agora Blog published Professor Susana SáCouto’s analysis of the challenges and opportunities facing the ICC as it welcomes the Court’s third prosecutor, Karim Kahn. Now in its 19th year, SáCouto notes that the Court is confronted by issues of legitimacy and serious financial constraints.

    • Forthcoming book on Gender and International Criminal Law, co-edited by WCRO Director Susana SáCouto with Valerie Oosterveld and Indira Rosenthal

      In a pre-launch event of Gender and International Criminal Law, co-editors WCRO Director Susana SáCouto, University of Western Ontario Faculty of Law Professor Valerie Oosterveld and gender, human rights and ICL expert Indira Rosenthal joined leading feminist international criminal and humanitarian law practitioners to discuss misconceptions concerning gender in the prosecution of sexual violence and gender-based crimes in international criminal law (ICL). The side event was  part of the 20th Annual Session of the Assembly of States Parties (ASP) to the Rome Statute held this December and co-hosted by the representatives of Uruguay, Canada, Australia, and Switzerland to the Netherlands; the International Gender Champions in The Hague; and Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice.

      Read more in the press release, and view a recording of the panel discussion. See the full agenda of #ASP20 Civil Society Side Events to learn about additional topics covered.

  • Continued to provide substantive, experiential learning opportunities to WCL students, who remain instrumental to our work:

    • Ten students supported the WCRO’s confidential and public research projects and programming through the International Criminal Law Practicum, Dean’s Fellowships, or independent studies.

    • Two students were selected and coached by the WCRO to represent WCL in The Clara Barton IHL Competition

       The Clara Barton IHL Competition

      In March, Megan Cox '22 and Courtney Veneri '22 joined over 80 law students and military academy cadets from eighteen schools in the US, Argentina, Brazil and Peru for the 7th Annual Clara Barton International Humanitarian Law Competition (CBC). Due to COVID-19, CBC was held virtually this year. Despite the challenges of a novel format, Megan and Courtney both finished as semi-finalists, each receiving runner-up designations for Best Advocate. The WCL team was coached by Professor Susana SáCouto and 2019 Clara Barton alumna Lindsey Miller.

    • 52 students and alumni volunteered on WCRO projects, including writing posts on news and jurisprudential developments coming out of international and other tribunals tasked with trying grave crimes for the International Criminal Law Updates blog.

The impressive achievements of WCRO’s Advisory Board and Alumni Advisory Council members were frequently in the news this year.

Justice Goldstone
Christian De Vos
  • Christian De Vos (JD ’07) Wins ABILA Book of the Year Award

    WCRO Alumni Advisory Council member Christian De Vos (JD ’07) recently published his book Complementarity, Catalysts, Compliance: The International Criminal Court in Uganda, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo addressing the role that complementarity can play in the implementation of international criminal law. The book received the 2021 American Branch of the International Law Association (ABILA) Book of the Year Award!

Vy Nguyen
  • Vy Nguyen (JD ’15) Elected to ABA ICL Committee

    In June, WCRO Alumni Advisory Council member Vy Nguyen (JD ’15) was appointed Vice-Chair of Publications for the ABA International Law Section International Criminal Law Committee. In her role, Vy recently facilitated a panel on Forensic Evidence in the Field in Afghanistan and participated in an ABA panel on Careers in International Criminal Law.

Emma Brandon
  • Emma Brandon (JD ’17) Accepts Position with International Nuremberg Principles Academy

    In October, WCRO Alumni Advisory Council member Emma Brandon (JD ’17) submitted her doctoral thesis, Cooperation with the International Criminal Court and Regional Human Rights Courts: Obligations of Non-State Parties, to the University of Oslo's Faculty of Law. In January, she will begin a position at the International Nuremberg Principles Academy.

Kate Holcombe

As we close out 2021, please consider joining us in our pursuit of justice and accountability by making a tax-deductible contribution to the WCRO. Your gift will support our continued work to assist practitioners on the ground, prepare the next generation of lawyers to join the fight for international justice, and enable public debate of critical issues in the field of international criminal law.

We thank you for your support and wish you a wonderful holiday season.