Rachel Z. Johnson

Rachel Z. Johnson │ Temple, TX — Vanderbilt Law School

Rachel is a rising second-year students at Vanderbilt Law School. She is from Temple, TX, and double-majored in German and History at Amherst College. Shortly after graduation, she moved to Berlin, Germany, where she interned at the German parliament through the International Parliamentarian Scholarship program. Through her internship, Rachel became interested in international humanitarian law. This summer, Rachel will be working for the Radovan Karadzic defense team at the Residual Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals (MICT) in The Hague, Netherlands.

Blog Post One:

My first week in The Hague, The Netherlands, where I am interning in the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), is coming to an end. It has been a busy, eventful week. I am working on the defense team of Radovan Karadzic, a convicted war criminal.  In March 2016, he was found guilty of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. My task is to write part of the appeal. For the past several days, I have been reading the judgment, familiarizing myself with the issues, and beginning the somewhat daunting task of searching through international jurisprudence. I have also been reflecting a lot on what it means to be working for a defense team at the ICTY.

The United Nations established the ICTY in 1993 to prosecute war crimes committed on the former territory of Yugoslavia. The tribunal was founded in response to the atrocities of the Yugoslav wars and represented a breakthrough in the development of international criminal law: for the first time in history, a court was established during a conflict to prosecute violations of humanitarian law and genocide. In establishing the Tribunal, the international community had many objectives: deterring war crimes, bringing justice to victims, documenting the wars, and ultimately, healing and reconciliation.

One of the challenges in criminal law is ensuring that defendants have a fair trial. Because the ICTY was created in a moment of global political consensus about the horrifying nature of specific conduct committed by specific individuals, there was a great deal of concern that the Tribunal would be seen as imposing victor’s justice: after all, the international community was already convinced of the guilt of certain individuals—including Radovan Karadzic. Humanitarian law has the goal of protecting civilians during armed conflict by restricting and regulating the means and methods of warfare available to combatants. If the judicial body tasked with evaluating humanitarian law violations and assessing crimes against humanity does not follow the rule of law and the right to a fair trial, the laws and norms it is trying to protect would be undermined. The entire project of establishing an international criminal court would be pointless if the Tribunal disregarded the rights of defendants in a favor of a politically expeditious outcome.

When I tell people I am working on the defense team of a notorious man convicted of heinous crimes, I sometimes get puzzled looks and questions about how I can morally justify that work. But in a robust justice system that follows the rule of law, every person has the right to a fair trial. The goal of international criminal law is to bring perpetrators of war crimes to justice in as fair as manner as possible. The work of the prosecutor cannot be done without the work of a defense team, evaluating that the process proceeded fairly.


One Comment Add yours

  1. ed nichols says:


    Radovan Karadzic must of course receive a fair trial. I am proud of you for writing part of his defense and you should be proud of this too. After all, if we did not give him a fair trial then we would not be much better than he was.

    Thank you for your interest in humanitarian law and for going to The Hague and doing this important work. There will be a reception for all of the Nichols recipients in October and I hope that you will be able to attend so that I can thank you in person and learn more about what you did.



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