Warren County native and former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson laid the foundation for international criminal law prosecution through his work as the chief prosecutor for the United States at Nuremburg, prosecuting World War II Nazi war criminals.
That aspect of his legacy will be celebrated on his birthday, Feb. 13, at a special lecture to be given by Jackson Center President and former Chief of Prosecutions of the Special Court of Sierra Leone, James C. Johnson at 7 p.m. at the Warren County Courthouse.
Johnson said the focus of the session will be "to bring home what is going on today. By using the most recent trial and conviction of a head of state, (I will) use that as a vehicle to show where international criminal justice is today and where it is going."
He will give his first-hand account of the trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, focusing on both the legal and practical issues of the trial and conviction. Taylor was convicted on 11 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other violations of international law. He was sentenced to 50 years in prison.
Johnson will also speak to students at Warren Area High School that morning. "I want to try to bring some of these conflicts a little closer to students (and am) going to bring in the element of child soldiers. (We're) seeing that in Africa and many parts of the world in a big way. These are messages that many of our young people are shielded from. Our young people need to know what is going on in the world."
For a host of reasons, prosecuting international law is much more difficult than prosecuting crime at the local level, he said.
"The first challenge is always collecting the evidence because in some instances that evidence may be difficult to obtain," Johnson said. "It's not unreachable, but it might be in places hostile to investigators."
In other cases, prosecutors are not permitted into the country and, in many cases, actually bringing a head of state to the International Criminal Court is difficult. For example, Johnson said, Taylor was in exile for three years before he was brought for trial.
"You have to have the support of the international community," he added. "Once you have indicted someone to actually bring them to trial...these are very, very complicated cases to prove. These heads of state are removed from the actual crimes on the ground. In proving the case, you've got to get through many layers."
And it was Jackson who first sought to meet that burden at Nuremberg, the first international criminal tribunal. "It was his ground-breaking work that shows this," said Johnson.
Having served as a chief prosecutor in an international criminal court, Johnson can speak directly to the way the work of Jackson has influenced international criminal prosecutions since 1945.
"There's an intense awareness of what you're doing," he said. "You are keenly aware that what you're doing is the foundation and the work that was done by Justice Jackson back in 1945 when he set up the international tribunal. You are keenly aware of the rule of law. Above all other things, when you're moving forward with your trials and ensuring that those who are accused of the horrific crimes and crimes against humanity receive a fair trial so that the world can see that they know that justice is being done and they can see it. That is the over-arching thing."
"You don't think of Jackson day to day; (but) his presence is felt," said Johnson. "Everybody knows that we wouldn't be there if it wasn't for his courage in the groundwork that he laid."