It was a little over seven years ago that I last wrote a piece for the International Justice (IJ) Monitor website. It feels emotional to be back, this time round not to write a summary about courtroom events or a piece on international justice, but rather to help bring down the curtain on our trial monitoring project.
Almost 14 years ago (June 2007), the trial of former Liberian president Charles Taylor commenced in The Hague, thus the birth of Open Society Justice Initiative’s trial monitoring program. What started as a project to provide independent and credible information about Taylor’s trial to audiences in Sierra Leone and Liberia became a space for information on the major international justice trials around the world. On March 29, 2006, when Taylor was arrested in Nigeria and transferred into the custody of the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL), officials made a decision to move the former Liberian president’s trial to The Hague due to security concerns in the West African sub-region. An equally important concern was that the trial would be far removed, by thousands of miles, from the victims of his crimes in Sierra Leone, and from Liberia, where he had been a warlord and served as president. Concerns about an information gap between affected communities in West Africa and the trial in The Hague made it necessary to set up a monitoring program that would produce daily updates about the proceedings on a website dedicated to this purpose. That was the start of the Charles Taylor trial monitoring program.
Through daily summaries of proceedings in The Hague, the monitoring website eventually became a source of information beyond Sierra Leone and Liberia. Academics, government officials, students, victims, and journalists all became regular visitors. It was reported that at some point, SCSL staff, including prosecutors and defense lawyers read the daily summaries and followed some of the discussions in the comments section. Some SCSL interns later told me that reading the summaries on the website got them interested in the Taylor trial, and, as a result, they applied to work with the court. Taylor himself is reported to have read some of the summaries and liked the balanced approach to our reporting. Prominent global media that could not travel to The Hague utilized the summaries to get up to date news on happenings in the trial. Over a seven-year period, the monitoring website, which became a platform for discussion of various subjects related to the case, moderated over 18,000 comments from its readers. At the end of it all, readers were very appreciative that the monitoring program helped make the trial process very transparent. As we went on to monitor other international criminal trials, the monitoring project was institutionalized into what has become International Justice Monitor.
As is commonly said, “All good things must come to an end.” For IJ Monitor, this is the end of that road. The story of IJ Monitor is very much the story of the Justice Initiative’s engagement with the International Criminal Court and on broader issues relating to international justice trials. It has been one of the most visible parts of our work on international justice. It is hard to walk into a meeting or an academic institution without the Justice Initiative being complimented on the important work we do with IJ Monitor.
For me personally, it has not only been part of my journey within the Justice Initiative, it has also formed an important part of my work in the field of international justice. While I have found it fulfilling to provide much needed information on international criminal trials to various audiences, it has also been a great honor to hear, learn, and obtain feedback from many readers and incredible partners in the media and civil society on the importance of this work. We bring a curtain down on this project having done a lot to make trial monitoring a prominent part of international justice work. It is my hope and that of my colleagues that this does not mean the end of trial monitoring as we know it. Over the years, many partners have taken on this important work, and although we are ending our trial monitoring project, we will continue to follow and speak about international criminal trials in other ways. In the words of American author Frank Herbert, “There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.”