In Professor David Kaye's law course, students go where the action is in international human rights. For these motivated students, who study the mechanisms of justice for war crimes and crimes against humanity and genocide, that arena is The Hague in the Netherlands.
That explains why six students, half of the Kaye's class enrolled in the International Justice Clinic in the School of Law, are there attending an important meeting of the International Criminal Court through Nov. 26. The students are preparing what may be the only independent, academic assessment of where the 110 member states of the ICC stand today on how the court should function.
"This is great. It's completely practical. It's completely hands-on," said UCLA student Lindsey Zwicker, participating in an online video interview with three of her classmates. "We've gotten the opportunity to speak to delegates from around the world … and actually see laws being made."
UCLA law students Lindsey Zwicker (from the left) and Stephanie Montano stand with ICC Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, and two of their law school classmates, Yasmin Elhady and Manisha Munshi.
This year's ICC meeting is special for two main reasons. It's the first time that the United States government has sent an official delegation to observe progress at the world's war crimes court, which was fiercely opposed by the Bush administration. And it's also the final meeting before a long-anticipated key conference set for May and June in Kampala, Uganda. There, the 110 member states will consider important amendments to a treaty known as the Rome Statute, which established the ICC as a permanent body in 2002. The United States has never ratified the treaty, citing concerns that the court might seek to constrain U.S. military action or prosecute soldiers.
With each student focusing on a specific region in the world, Zwicker and her classmates are interviewing delegates from governments and advocacy organizations to determine the state of play on policy issues. They will report their findings in the spring and perhaps make recommendations toward a broader U.S. engagement with the court.
Third-year law students Emily Keehn and Yasmin Elhady remarked that representatives from the nongovernmental groups are deeply and constructively involved in discussions about the ICC's future.
Initially, said Keehn, "I felt like this (the Hague Assembly) was going to be this giant, formal mechanism." Now that she is there, she said, "I'm realizing now how much it actually is driven by civil society."
A key issue to be debated at the Kampala conference is whether and when the ICC should prosecute a crime of aggression or unlawful use of force, the "supreme international crime" defined in the Nuremberg Trials after World War II. Addressing the assembly at the Hague On Nov. 19, U.S. war crimes envoy Stephen Rapp said that the United Nations Security Council should be the body to decide whether a state has committed aggression, even if the Rome Statute is changed to include the crime. That would preserve veto power in such cases for the United States and other permanent Security Council members, he maintained.
In their interviews, the six law students are hearing a wider array of views. Some delegates, for example, favor independence for ICC prosecutors to move forward against those accused of the crime.
Although "the general tone is (that) people are happy the United States is reengaging with the International Criminal Court," said third-year student Daniel Antalics, reaction to the U.S. debut at the annual assembly has been mixed.
"The U.S. at one point had a lot … better reputation in terms of international justice," added Elhady, noting that the ICC, obliged to develop in the face of U.S. hostility, is a measure of "just how much work the world has already done without us."
On war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, the ICC was always conceived as a court of last resort, to be used when governments will not or cannot hold their citizens accountable. Zwicker observed that this framework can serve as an inducement for countries, including the United States, to improve their own criminal law codes.
"It's not clear that we actually have the capacity to prosecute crimes against humanity, or crimes within our own jurisdiction," Zwicker said.
In working on these issues at the frontline of international justice, the students said they are motivated by multiple aims, from their desire to represent delegates' views fairly to hopes for a reversal in the U.S. stance on the court.
"We shouldn’t be too idealistic," Elhady added, "but I think all of us kind of have to be dreamers to be here."