Fondation Hirondelle      +41 21 654 20 20

Our news

Relatives of five youngsters murdered during mass violences in Colombia, pose with their portraits. House of Memories of Conflict and  Reconciliation, Cali, October 2020. © Luis ROBAYO / AFP Relatives of five youngsters murdered during mass violences in Colombia, pose with their portraits. House of Memories of Conflict and Reconciliation, Cali, October 2020.

Understanding mass violence to prevent it recurring

View and/or download attachments:

Thierry Cruvellier is editor of Justice Info, a Fondation Hirondelle media outlet that covers justice initiatives in countries facing the most serious forms of violence. “For justice to be done, it must be seen” is Justice Info’s motto.

You have been covering justice processes around the world for nearly 30 years, particularly trials for crimes against humanity. Why this fascination?

Thierry Cruvellier: In the early 1990s, I was working as a reporter in Sierra Leone and Rwanda. The genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda that started in April 1994 changed my whole professional and intellectual life. I wanted to follow the first trials of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), set up by the UN in November 1994 and based in Arusha, Tanzania. I went to Arusha for five weeks and stayed for five years. For our generation of journalists, these trials, like those of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, were the equivalent of the Nuremberg trials. We were witnessing a major development in international criminal justice. The international community seemed to be saying that justice was key to lasting peace in societies torn apart by mass murder. Several bodies were successively created, with a regional scope or a universal vocation, such as the International Criminal Court (ICC). Assigning individual criminal responsibility for certain serious acts that contravene the norms of international law also became a geopolitical issue. There are political and diplomatic strategies revolving around these judicial institutions.

Since then I have covered numerous justice processes around the world, especially for crimes against humanity (Sierra Leone, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia, Colombia, Chad). International criminal justice and transitional justice have become my field of work. Covering these international trials allows you not only to observe developments in international law and politics, but also to take a reflective look at human society from different perspectives: historical, thanks to eyewitness accounts; psychological, if we want to understand mass violence; and philosophical with regard to notions of punishment, forgiveness and reconciliation. It’s an infinitely rich field for a journalist. The trial of one individual can reveal the wider picture, complex and traumatic, through what happened in one life.

What are the specific constraints of a journalist working on these issues?

Journalists working on international and transitional justice are subject to the same ethical imperatives as all journalists: independence, clarity, accuracy and impartiality. But the degree of vigilance and rigour needed with regard to these imperatives is sometimes very high, for several reasons. First, you have to read up intensively on the history of the conflicts, which are often complex and take place in countries far from the journalist’s cultural origins. You have to read up on the law and legal procedure, which are also complex and may be used by the courts to mask their own weaknesses. You also need not to be overwhelmed by empathy, even if empathy for the victims seems natural. You must not allow yourself to be overwhelmed by the extremity of the charges, nor too impressed by the institution judging them. When dealing with this extreme violence and the individuals accused of participating in it, there is a great risk of forgetting the presumption of innocence. Journalists must pay particular attention to listening to all the parties involved, including the defence, whose voice is often the least audible in this type of trial. Like all judicial institutions, especially on an international scale, these courts are places of power: they are never immune from producing injustices or miscarriages of justice. What’s more, they operate in a kind of democratic desert, since they are usually far removed from the societies where the crimes were committed (ICTR in Arusha, ICTY and International Criminal Court in The Hague) and lack the traditional checks and balances. Journalists must therefore be particularly attentive to the fact that covering international justice is always about democracy.

Which media cover these international and transitional justice proceedings best?

Covering trials is a long-term job. To follow a trial with a sufficiently detailed understanding, you have to be there all the time, for months or even years. It is often media operating as NGOs that provide this coverage, rather than general media that lack the time and resources. So it’s the NGO media that has provided detailed and long-term coverage of international trials.

In this context, the stronger the national press is, the more likely it is that international trials will be covered. Through their knowledge of the country, national journalists not only provide a critical and analytical view of the trials in progress, but also do a better job of publicising their country’s judicial decisions. The national media can exert more pressure to make the trials public, thereby compensating as well as they can for the democratic deficit from which the international courts suffer.

At Justice Info, we work exclusively with correspondents. Our media is conceived as an interface between the local and the international, and is aimed at both these audiences. Hence the importance I attach to the work of our correspondents, who have made a long-term commitment to the transitional justice processes in their countries – including Olfa Belhassine’s coverage of Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission on human rights violations committed by the state after the 2011 revolution; Mustapha Darboe’s work on the Gambian Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission dealing with human rights violations that occurred after the dictatorship in Gambia; and the work of Andrés Bermúdez Liévano on the extraordinarily complex and ambitious transitional justice process that is still underway in Colombia (see box). Their articles have provided readers with a real understanding of these processes that is hard to equal.

What are the latest developments in transitional justice and how do they impact your work?

Unlike 30 years ago, serious violations of international law are no longer a niche issue. They are now front-page news in the mainstream media, as is currently the case with the conflicts in Ukraine and Israel/Palestine (see box). At Justice Info, we try to provide a link. Our starting point is the perhaps naïve but fundamental idea of international justice: an atrocity that defies human dignity in one part of the world actually concerns all of humanity. In our articles, we try to highlight what resonates from one crime to another, from one country to another, from one judicial process to another, in order to give an understanding of this violence – our modest way to help combat it, and end this eternal repetition.

Transitional justice no longer concerns only post-war situations or the end of a dictatorship. The central argument of human rights violation is now being used by numerous NGOs that are taking actors like multinational companies to court for their responsibility in climate change and other environmental destruction. The issue of reparation for colonial crimes, including the restitution of goods looted from colonised societies, has returned to the forefront.

Several truth commissions have also been set up on these subjects. The issue of indigenous peoples – victims of colonisation and the destruction of their living environment by land grabbing, industrial extraction or intensive agriculture – is at the heart of this renewal of international and transitional justice. More often than not, the responsibility for contemporary violence now lies with actors in the North, not just in the South. This doesn’t change the journalist’s job per se, but our network of correspondents needs to be constantly expanded to keep up with these dynamics.

The subjects of international and transitional justice are constantly evolving, and respond to public expectations. We have to adapt to them and anticipate them. Violations committed by extremist groups, religious institutions, gangs and police violence are, for example, real issues that we will have to deal with in future publications.


This interview is taken from our 12th publication "Mediation" entitled "Making sense of international and transitional justice", available at this link.