Inspiring Ideas

A Linguist’s View of the International Criminal Court

In May this year, after a trial that lasted almost four and a half years, the International Criminal Court (ICC) sentenced Dominic Ongwen to 25 years imprisonment for crimes against humanity and war crimes in Northern Uganda. Sigurd D’hondt, an associate professor of Applied Linguistics at the University of Jyväskylä (JYU) in Finland, was watching the trial closely. He is the Principal Investigator of a project studying the ICC, which combines language and law research. 

Dr. Sigurd D'hondt

Through discourse analysis and courtroom ethnography, he and his colleagues are examining how different people, like judges, lawyers and victims, involved in international trials navigate the challenges they encounter. He explains, “We don’t just focus on the end product. We look at what happens when perpetrators, victims , and other trial actors interact with one another before the court. How is the evidence negotiated? How is the trial procedure negotiated? Some people just look at the outcome (the verdict), but the courtroom is kind of a black box. We try to open up the black box and see what’s going on inside on a day-to-day basis.”

Working on a project like this requires a sound understanding of the law, and it helps that one of Sigurd’s team members is a lawyer. The emphasis on collaborating with colleagues from different disciplines was one of the reasons that Sigurd was attracted to JYU. He says, “In other universities, I’ve had the feeling that I was kind of at the margins of linguistics because of the interdisciplinary nature of my work. It draws on anthropology, sociology and legal studies. In Jyväskylä, because of its interdisciplinary orientation, the kind of research I do connects more easily with what other colleagues are doing.” Sigurd’s research career, which has encompassed diverse areas such as Swahili conversation, East African popular culture and intercultural communication in courtrooms, has been rooted in his interest in how people use language. This is also the basis for his work on the ICC.

The purpose of the ICC is to investigate and prosecute those involved in four main types of crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression. It began operations in 2002 in The Hague, Netherlands, after its legal framework was established by a treaty called the Rome Statute. Many aspects of the workings of the court are still evolving. Sigurd notes, “It’s very much a recent court, not like established domestic courts that have hundreds of years of history behind them. The procedural and substantial law still need some development. There are also a lot of political challenges. What I’m interested in is how people attend to these challenges while they interact with one another before the court, and how this affects the process of negotiating legal outcomes.”

One of the important features of the ICC is that it was the first international tribunal that explicitly recognised the rights of victims. They can request victim participant status, and the judges may allow them to present their “views and concerns” before the  court. But there is still some procedural uncertainty as to how exactly victim’s rights should be implemented, and different ICC Trial Chambers have interpreted the Rome Statute in partially different ways. Another issue is that due to the large numbers involved, victims are rarely allowed to make direct statements before the court. Instead, a legal representative addresses the court on their behalf, and sometimes this representative is appointed by the ICC itself. “All this has been studied on paper, but with interaction analysis we can examine how this plays out in real life in the courtroom.”

The International Criminal Court in The Hague

Another issue that has attracted a lot of sociolegal attention lately is the concept of victimhood and the different discourses that the ICC uses for representing them. Often, victims are portrayed as helpless and deprived of their humanity through the harms they’d suffered, and the role of the court is to restore humanity to the victim. He says, “This image of victimhood is problematic in that it’s very much an abstract victim. It doesn’t always correspond to the actual daily needs of these concrete individuals who apply for victim participant status.” 

Working at JYU has allowed Sigurd to pursue this kind of research because, he says, “Jyväskylä is one of the places where this discourse -based, ethnographic view of language studies has a very strong tradition.” He appreciates the fact that there’s a lot of high-quality research going on there, but everyone still maintains a healthy work-life balance. He says, “Overall, it’s a pleasant place to work.”

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University of Jyväskylä

The University of Jyväskylä is a nationally and internationally significant research university and an expert on education that focuses on human and natural sciences. The university combine high-level competence in education, natural sciences, humanities and social sciences, and sport and health sciences, as well as in economics and business administration, into a multidisciplinary entity.
Title A Linguist’s View of the International Criminal Court
Posted on Dec 21, 2021 at 10:51 am.
Category Inspiring Ideas
Tags Applied Linguistics, Ethnology, International Law, Sociolinguistics