A Look Back as the Justice Initiative’s Trial Monitoring Ends

Fourteen years ago, the Open Society Justice Initiative launched its first website dedicated to monitoring grave crimes trials. That website, which followed the trial of former Liberian president Charles Taylor, became the model for International Justice (IJ) Monitor, our project that spanned over a dozen International Criminal Court (ICC) and domestic grave crimes trials. As an accurate, concise, and trustworthy source of information, our reporting captured the details of some of the most significant trials thus far in the 21st century.

It is now with great humility that we announce the formal closure of our trial monitoring project. The Justice Initiative has had to make difficult choices about priorities and resources with continuing and emergent crises in the international justice field, including for example, the situation in Syria. At the same time, there is a sense that the field of trial monitoring is growing and our role is no longer unique because there is a new generation of trial monitors undertaking this important work. We hope that our legacy will inspire even more actors to join the effort in documenting grave crimes trials.


In 2007, when the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) shifted the venue of the Taylor trial from Sierra Leone to The Hague, it was evident that an independent form of outreach was needed to allow West African audiences to witness the trial of the former head of State and alleged author of mass atrocities. The Justice Initiative had already been regularly monitoring the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). We understood that independent coverage of a court and its trials is an important tool not only to enhance outreach and dissemination of information about the trials, but also to help educate the public on issues such as fair trials, rights of defendants, and international law.

It is from these strategic aims that a website was born, dedicated to monitoring daily courtroom developments and highlighting perspectives of victims and affected communities. By eventually deploying monitors from the region as court observers, who would publish their independent coverage of the Taylor trial on the website, we sought to ensure that the trial received coverage in the region and around the world. The blog format also allowed readers to submit comments and contribute to the debate on justice in the region.

Research and practical experience has shown that public information and outreach is a key component to the success of international criminal tribunals and is essential to raising public awareness about transitional justice and bringing the tribunals’ work to the impacted communities. This is what makes monitoring so crucial. The Taylor trial is considered one of the greatest accomplishments in international justice, in part because affected communities and key actors regularly accessed information and engaged with the trial. These communities came away with a better understanding about the importance of ending impunity for atrocity crimes and awareness that even top leaders can be held accountable.

Studies have also shown that the absence of an outreach strategy undermines the legitimacy and legacy of tribunals. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) did not initiate its outreach program until 1999, six years into its existence. The delay in establishing outreach programs severely affected the local populations’ perceptions about the ICTY, and the ICTY was “often viewed as remote and disconnected from the population.” Along with increased resources from relevant tribunals, we envisioned our trial monitoring work to be part of the solution to this problem.

The Creation of IJ Monitor

On the heels of our Taylor trial monitoring, the Justice Initiative created individual websites to monitor five of the first ICC trials, as well as the landmark genocide trial of former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt in Guatemala’s domestic courts. In 2014, we merged these separate websites into our IJ Monitor platform with an explicit goal to enhance the quality and quantity of public information about grave crimes trials. We wanted our trial monitoring to play a part in evaluating international criminal tribunals in both jurisprudential and operational terms.

Although enabling greater access to real-time information to local journalists and civil society was always our goal, each trial had its own unique set of circumstances, sometimes necessitating a more tailored approach. For example, our monitoring of the ICC cases in Kenya, which related to the aftermath of post-election violence in 2007 and 2008, had to combat a lack of impartial independent information about the cases and the ICC’s role. Our trial monitoring of grave crimes in the domestic courts of Guatemala needed to focus on broadening the constituency of support for such trials, which were at risk of political interference. With the ECCC, our focus had been monitoring the institution as a whole, from defense rights to outreach to donor funding in light of concerns about institutional independence.

At the time of IJ Monitor’s launch, several factors made our project unique. First, we had the resources to provide daily monitoring of grave crimes trials from beginning to end. This was no small feat because trials can last for several years. This daily monitoring also led to other advocacy opportunities. For example, in the first ICC trial of Thomas Lubanga, as the only independent daily courtroom monitors, we were in a unique position to critique the court and advocate for improvements in the implementation of coherent guidelines to address how the court interacts with intermediaries during investigations.

Another unique aspect of our monitoring was the commitment to engaging a broad audience using non-technical language. It was important for the daily summaries to be understood by the average person, student, or journalist, so they could be easily adapted or reproduced by local media and further disseminated by civil society. We also took care to integrate perspectives from victims and affected communities for each of the trials we monitored, which provided an opportunity for their voices to reach a broader audience. This provided a fuller sense of what was at stake with each trial because what happens in the courtroom is only one part of the story.

Finally, the people behind IJ Monitor contributed to its distinctiveness. Our dedicated trial monitors became experts not only in each trial they wrote about, but also in the institutions that conducted the trials. Their work will live on in the numerous media outlets, academic articles, and books where their work is cited. From Alpha Sesay and Jennifer Easterday, who covered the Taylor trial and the early ICC cases, to Tom Maliti and Wakabi Wairagala, who followed nearly every other ICC trial to date, our trial monitors conducted their work with purpose and integrity. The same can be said of our former longtime ECCC monitor Heather Ryan and Guatemala trials expert Jo-Marie Burt. Their knowledge of the proceedings, institutions, and local political context in which the trials took place is hard to rival.

Impact over the Years

Assessing the impact of our work has never been a precise science. We had remarkable success in audience engagement during the Taylor trial. By the conclusion of our monitoring after seven years, we had moderated over 18,000 comments, and local media in West Africa had used our reports extensively. The dissemination of our content has also made an impact. During the trial of Dominic Ongwen, the first Lord’s Resistance Army leader tried at the ICC, Ugandan media reprinted our reporting, and our local partner in Gulu, Foundation for Development and Justice Initiatives, shared these updates at community outreach events. In eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Radio Canal Revelation used their justice and peace programming to share IJ Monitor updates from the trials of Lubanga, Germain Katanga, Mathieu Ngudjolo, Jean-Pierre Bemba, and Bosco Ntaganda. Our dedicated partners Lino Owor Ogora in Uganda and Richard Pituwa in Congo also shared interviews and commentary from affected communities, contributing to a two-way flow of information from the courtroom to communities and back.

In Guatemala, our monitoring filled a key niche by bringing more attention to the grave crimes cases, which helped to prevent their derailment through politicization, intimidation, or corruption.  The reporting on Guatemala’s grave crimes trials, done in English and often appearing in Spanish translation in local media, was important because it reached international and domestic audiences alike and identified issues and advocacy opportunities that spurred joint NGO actions. 

Despite these positive accomplishments, we also learned lessons about the limitations of reaching local audiences. We realized that a website was not (always) enough to engage local communities meaningfully so we took measures to complement those actions. For example, trials of high level accused, such as the Taylor trial and the Kenya trials, attracted a relevant number of engaged followers at the national level. Other trials, however, concerned specific communities with limited access to the internet and required complementarity measures to ensure that those concerned could engage with the monitoring, such as the partnerships in Congo and Uganda described above.

The many ICC trials we monitored also allowed the Justice Initiative to have an impact beyond providing information. We learned comparative lessons across trials and used this knowledge to advocate for a better functioning court. The lessons helped shape our advocacy on an array of issues from performance indicators to witness interference. Going forward, our trial reports will remain as an historical archive to be used for research and advocacy purposes by academics and activists alike seeking to understand and improve international justice mechanisms.  

Looking Ahead

In anticipation of our departure from the field, the Justice Initiative produced a guide to transfer some of our knowledge to organizations and journalists interested in undertaking this valuable work. The guide covers a range of trial monitoring activities, from establishing a monitoring program, to covering daily events in the courtroom, to defining audiences and selecting the best ways to communicate with them. A growing number of atrocity crimes trials will require an increasing number of skilled monitors, and we hope that this guide will help meet that demand.

Lastly, we want to recognize the bright new wave of trial monitoring activities taking place today. The Syria Justice and Accountability Center has been providing detailed reports on the first trial for international crimes committed during the Syrian conflict. Likewise, Civitas Maxima monitors criminal trials against those allegedly responsible for grave crimes in the Liberian civil war, including the trial of Gibril Massaquoi in Finland. Jo-Marie Burt is continuing her trial monitoring work in Guatemala through Verdad y Justicia en Guatemala. The Clooney Foundation for Justice’s TrialWatch program has made important contributions to the field. Although TrialWatch does not focus on grave crimes trials, it monitors trials in which there appear to be risks of fair trial violations and advocate for victims’ rights.

One omission in this list is independent monitoring of ongoing ICC trials, which are particularly difficult to follow due to the distance from the court to affected communities and length of proceedings, among other things. Yet impartial monitoring of those cases is vital because of the distance from affected communities. Our departure leaves a gap in independent monitoring on ongoing ICC trials, which we hope will soon be filled.

As others continue to monitor grave crimes trials, we feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to shape the field and develop a historical archive that will be relevant for years to come.

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