Book Review: THE LAST TRIAL

THE LAST TRIAL, by Scott Turow, Pan Books, 2020, 449 pages, $12.82

The law is humanity’s sanctuary, where we retreat from unreason. And humans need the law, because they need to believe there is some justice to their interactions, a justice that God or Fate or the Universe, call it what you like, will never provide on their own.

Reviewing Turow’s Testimony (2017) here, I completely panned it, recommending that you opt for John Grisham’s Camino Island, which had just come out (incidentally, the sequel Camino Winds which recently came out is also a recommended beach read). Turow had never disappointed before; I first came across him when I read One L when thinking of going to law school. But in Testimony, I found the plot absurd and unrealistic, his courtroom scenes laughable (he was on unfamiliar ground at the ICC), his stereotyping distasteful (though he is unquestionably tolerant and unbiased), his historical narrative lazy and misleading (conflicts are complex with no one side having a monopoly on badness). Worst of all it is a “gratuitous Serb-bashing, primarily resulting from ignorance and insensitivity; using them as a punching bag, stereotyping them, and generalizing about their character or activities.”

Not so in The Last Trial.

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Book Review: EXTRAORDINARY JUSTICE – Law, Politics, and the Khmer Rouge Tribunals

EXTRAORDINARY JUSTICE – Law, Politics, and the Khmer Rouge Tribunals, by Craig Etcheson, Columbia University Press, 2020, 488 pages, $65.00

My central thesis in this work is that the law is at base an ideological enterprise, an ideology we can generally label as “legalism.” But – and this is crucial – the law is not a single, unified ideology. Rather, there are several different approaches to the concept of law, and we can see the animating principles underlying those different approaches in the way that war crimes tribunals are negotiated, operated, and concluded. I call these three approaches to law classical legalism, strategic legalism, and instrumental legalism. All three are long-standing, widespread, potent, and enduring. And the outcome of struggles among proponents of these different approaches determine much about how any particular war crimes tribunal ultimately unfolds.

The establishment of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) is a complex story, beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s as the atrocities taking place during the Democratic Kampuchea (DK) regime (1975-1979) became known. A show trial took place in August 1979. Pol Pot and my client, Ieng Sary, were held to account for all that had occurred. After the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement – which led to probably the fairest election in Cambodia’s history in 1993 – bringing to book the leaders of the DK regime and other responsible high-level Khmer Rouge cadre started to gain some momentum. Eventually, on 6 June 2003, an Agreement was hammered out between the Cambodian government, controlled by the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), and the United Nations (UN).

Getting to this Agreement, what the parties (purportedly) understood to have agreed to, what emerged from this Agreement – i.e., the procedural framework of an international(ized) criminal tribunal or specialized chamber within a national court system, its jurisdictional contours and applicable law, its hybridity of personnel, personality, and their interactions (national and international) in making the ECCC happen, and how it has operated – is what EXTRAORDINARY JUSTICE – Law, Politics, and the Khmer Rouge Tribunals is all about. Continue reading “Book Review: EXTRAORDINARY JUSTICE – Law, Politics, and the Khmer Rouge Tribunals”

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Book Review: ADAPTING INTERNATIONAL CRIMINAL JUSTICE IN SOUTHEAST ASIA – Beyond the International Criminal Court

ADAPTING INTERNATIONAL CRIMINAL JUSTICE IN SOUTHEAST ASIA – Beyond the International Criminal Court, by Emma Palmer, Cambridge University Press, 2020, 325 pages, $85.00

Principles of sovereignty, related fears of international interference or selective prosecutions, a preference for domestic proceedings, the influence of other states such as the United States, and the existence of other priorities – including development and threats to stability arising from armed conflict – are all features of the debate about international criminal justice in Southeast Asia, although they may also be relevant beyond the region. (p. 237)

When I first arrived in Cambodia in 1994 to train human rights advocates to act as public defenders for the Cambodia Defenders Project, followed by a year of training judges and prosecutors (1995-1996), foreigners working at NGOs and international organizations were beating the drums of accountability – raising the prospect of bringing to trial those responsible for the atrocities that had occurred before, during, and after the Democratic Kampuchea (DK) period. The NGO industry was flourishing. It was like the wild West with experts, much like out-of-town hired guns, offering their services – much of which I would say was half-baked at best. I rarely heard local Cambodians calling for trials or justice; the primary, if not exclusive, preoccupation was having a roof over one’s head, food on the table, and schooling for the children.

Back then Cambodia was much different, though some things, as in the rule of law, have remained the same. There were only a handful of Cambodian lawyers (mainly from abroad), no bar association, a medley of applicable criminal codes and procedures, an untrained and unsophisticated judiciary (ditto for prosecutors), ethically challenged police (highly corrupt), and an exhausted yet hopeful population looking to promising days ahead. Continue reading “Book Review: ADAPTING INTERNATIONAL CRIMINAL JUSTICE IN SOUTHEAST ASIA – Beyond the International Criminal Court”

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Book Review: A DESCENDING SPIRAL – Exposing the Death Penalty in 12 Essays

A DESCENDING SPIRAL – Exposing the Death Penalty in 12 Essays, by Marc Bookman, The New Press, 2021, 222 pages, $22.30.

Patterns emerge from death row. While racism plays a driving force on both sides of the aisle and from the bench, and inept defense lawyering often goes hand in hand with prosecutorial misconduct, there is another impelling cause of death sentences – severe mental illness. … Finally, there is the capriciousness of the capital punishment system, and what public policy operates on the basis of capriciousness?  pp. 216-7

Last Friday night, while blissfully indulging in discretionary reading, I came across Lendel Lee’s story.  DNA evidence proved that four years earlier, in April 2017, he was wrongly executed by the state of Arkansas. For more than a decade and up until he was lethally injected, he insisted that he did not commit the crime. As expected, or I should say, as usual, the Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who at the time was ramping up lethal injections, defended the execution by claiming he was merely following the law. Others in the criminal justice system who might have had a hand in Lee’s conviction and death sentence remained unmoved and would resort to alternative theories justifying the righteousness of the execution, such as the old standby that whoever left that DNA was Lee’s accomplice, or the DNA does not prove anything.

A few days earlier, I received a pre-publication copy of a book from my good friend Alan Yatvin, suggesting that I might want to review it. The title was intriguing, but it was the subtitle that caught my attention. Sighing, I thought to myself, not another death penalty book! It would have to wait its turn. So, I put it at the bottom of the pile of books waiting their turn to be read. However, as I stared at Lee’s photograph, with his last words echoing in my ears, I set aside the book I was reading and reached for the one at the bottom of the pile, A DESCENDING SPIRAL – Exposing the Death Penalty in 12 Essays. I am glad I did. Continue reading “Book Review: A DESCENDING SPIRAL – Exposing the Death Penalty in 12 Essays”

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Book Review: SHOCKING THE CONSCIENCE OF HUMANITY

SHOCKING THE CONSCIENCE OF HUMANITY – Gravity and the Legitimacy of International Criminal Law, by Margaret M. deGuzman, Oxford University Press, 2020, 217 pages, £80.00/$90.00

Global adjudicative authority is the authority that national and supranational institutions exercise when they adjudicate crimes on behalf of the global community…. [T]he moral justification for global prescription is the global community’s interest in preventing harm to human dignity. Global prescription is thus justified for all non-minimal harms to human dignity, and is most strongly legitimate for those in which the global community has the greatest interest. In contrast, the legitimacy of global adjudication depends not only on the strength of the global community’s interest in adjudication, but also on whether that interest outweighs any countervailing interests. (p. 98)

Prosecutors in national jurisdictions exercise their authority on what to charge or not charge, based on several variables, with gravity not playing much of a role – at least not in the context understood and applied in charging international crimes. Gravity is more likely to come to the fore at sentencing. It makes sense. The legislature criminalizes conduct based on societal/community norms. Thus, whether a particular set of circumstances should be prosecuted generally does not factor gravity into the mix, as such, when the evidence supports a reasonable assessment that the requisite elements in establishing the commission of a crime are met. Put differently, if in the prosecutor’s opinion, the evidence is qualitatively sufficient to meet his or her burden of proof in establishing that a particular individual committed crimes, save for ancillary factors that militate against prosecution, the prosecutor is expected to charge and prosecute that individual. I am oversimplifying for the sake of brevity, but the point is that in national prosecutions, “gravity” plays a lesser role on whether to charge or not. Even then, usually, there are criteria that guide prosecutors and judges – as readily apparent when fashioning sentences. Continue reading “Book Review: SHOCKING THE CONSCIENCE OF HUMANITY”

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Book Review: THE OXFORD GUIDE TO INTERNATIONAL HUMANITARIAN LAW

The Oxford Guide to International Humanitarian Law, edited by Ben Saul & Dapo Akande, Oxford University Press, 2020, 442 pages, $ 49,95

You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for $1.50 in late fees at the public library.

Matt Damon from Good Will Hunting 

One of the most memorable scenes in the film Good Will Hunting is when Matt Damon – playing the exceptionally brilliant, success-shunning Will Hunting, who does construction day labor when not moonlighting as a janitor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, irreverently solving mind-twisting mathematical problems left on the blackboards by the professors for the students to solve – takes down an elitist, arrogant, and pretentious Harvard student who is toying with one of Will’s friends. I particularly liked the quote in this scene because of the truism of Will’s putdown: you can learn just as much by going to the books as you can by attending a top-flight university – and for a fraction of the cost.

Whenever I think of this scene, I am reminded of my torts professor who, upon entering the classroom the first day, dispensed with all expected formalities, and disabused many of us from thinking that we were in law school to stuff as much law into our heads as possible, saying: Those of you who want to learn the law go to the library, you will find it in the books. Those of you who wish to learn to think like lawyers and know what to do with the law once you find it in the library, stay. Continue reading “Book Review: THE OXFORD GUIDE TO INTERNATIONAL HUMANITARIAN LAW”

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Book Review: Imagining Justice for Syria

Imagining Justice for Syria, by Beth Van Schaack, Oxford University Press, 2020, 476 pages, £64

It is tempting to conclude that our multilateral institutions do not have the capacity to address tragedies like Syria. However, the fault is not necessarily in the institutions themselves but with those who have the power to act. The law exists, as does a cadre of professionals with the necessary skills and a ready set of justice models; what is lacking is the ability to achieve a political consensus on a path forward, or a willingness to proceed without such a consensus, with respect to situations like Syria, where there has been no regime change, where atrocities are ongoing, and – most importantly – where the great powers find themselves at odds with each other. The long-standing weakness in our system of international justice is made all more pronounced by the situation in Syria.

It has been over a decade since we last went about our daily lives without having to hear about, or see on the news or social media, atrocities being committed in Syria. Just reflect on all that has happened to you since 2011 (what you accomplished at university or work, the events in your personal life, your travels, your joys and your losses), and just imagine what your life would have been like were you to trade all of those memories and experiences for a decade of living in Syria, under or in flight from the Assad Regime, gassed and poisoned, terrorized by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), deprived of virtually every human right and human dignity, constantly under fear or on the run, watching loved ones and friends being tortured, maimed, killed, living in refugee camps, crossing dangerous lands and waters in search for safety only to find closed border-crossings by hostile governments, and so on. Continue reading “Book Review: Imagining Justice for Syria”

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Book Review: Lives of the Stoics – The Art of Living from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius

Lives of the Stoics – The Art of Living from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius, by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, Profile Books, 2020, 326 pages, €19.95

Panaetius argues that if we are to live an ethical life and chose appropriate actions, we must find a way to balance:

1) the roles and duties common to us all as human beings;

2) the roles and duties unique to our individual daimon, or personal genius/calling;

3) the roles and duties assigned to us by the chance of our social station (family and profession);

4) the roles and duties that arise from decisions and commitments we have made.

Lives of the Stoics, p. 81

It has been a trying and challenging year. Although there is light at the end of this dark COVID-19 tunnel in which we find ourselves, this light – promised by miracle vaccines discovered in record time – sadly, may not come soon enough for many. The winter holiday season is supposed to make us jolly and joyful. But let’s be honest. For some, even under normal circumstances, it is not the best of times.

Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations, “[t]here is no role so well suited to philosophy as the one you happen to be in right now.” Words that were as relevant for his days as they are for ours. Some of us, our friends, our family members, may be or believe themselves to be in a difficult, dispirited, disconnected place with no relief on the horizon. Some of us may be blessed with unusual success, feeling euphoric. Some of us may simply be doing okay, grateful to have survived 2020 and happy to be where we are – physically, mentally, and professionally. Continue reading “Book Review: Lives of the Stoics – The Art of Living from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius”

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Book Review: Just Mercy: A story of Justice and Redemption and The Guardians

Just Mercy: A story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson, One World (Reprint edition), 2015, 368 pages, €9.79

The Guardians, by John Grisham, Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, 2020, 384 pages, €10.75

If you think you’re too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.

                                                                  Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama

 

On 10 December 2020, Brandon Bernard was put to death after spending 20 years on death row for his involvement in a double homicide when he was 18 years old. By all accounts, he was a model prisoner, genuinely remorseful, and rehabilitated. His dying words to the victims’ families were:

I’m sorry. That’s the only words that I can say that completely capture how I feel now and how I felt that day. Continue reading “Book Review: Just Mercy: A story of Justice and Redemption and The Guardians”

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Book Review – Comparative Reasoning in International Courts and Tribunals

Comparative Reasoning in International Courts and Tribunals, by Daniel Peat, Cambridge University Press, 2019, 258 pages, € 29 (paperback).  Winner of the 2020 European Society of International Law Book Prize.

A word is not a crystal, transparent, and unchanged, it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used.


Oliver Wendall Holmes, Towne v. Eisner, 245 US 418, 425 (1918)

Daniel Peat’s parting thoughts in Comparative Reasoning in International Courts and Tribunals are that if we are to “understand the complexity and contextuality that interpretation inevitably entails” in both international law and domestic law, we need to acknowledge the “mutability” that US Supreme Court Justice Holmes speaks of in Towne v. Eisner (p. 221). Put differently, when interpreting a word, a term, a rule, a law, a treaty, context matters. Any practitioner worth his salt knows this. So, what’s new? Continue reading “Book Review – Comparative Reasoning in International Courts and Tribunals”

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