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Defeating impunity, promoting international justice

Défaire l'impunité, promouvoir la justice internationale

The Belgian Experience (1870-2015)

L'expérience belge (1870-2015)

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Published on Wednesday, December 02, 2015


This conference seeks to discuss the Belgian record of engagement with international law and justice and to put this national experience in international perspective. It specifically questions the way in which the judiciary dealt with gross violations of international law in the wake of war and how legal actors responded to the challenges of an emergent and developing set of international laws, from 1870 to 2015. 



The conference seeks to discuss the Belgian record of engagement with international law and justice and to put this national experience in international perspective. It specifically questions the way in which the judiciary dealt with gross violations of international law in the wake of war and how legal actors responded to the challenges of an emergent and developing set of international laws. The Belgian experience does indeed offer the peculiarity that Belgium has been at the forefront of the articulation of the project of international justice, nolens volens. On the one hand, volens, from the foundation of the Institut de Droit International in Ghent in 1870 through the experimentation with extraterritorial jurisdiction in the 1990s, Belgian legal scholars and magistrates have indeed campaigned for an international legal and judicial order. On the other hand, nolens, Belgium has been occupied twice by its German neighbour, in 1914-1918 and 1940-1944. The crimes perpetrated within this context of war have fostered a renewed reflexion on international law and have led to complex legal, political and judicial processes wherein Belgian courts sought to bring German suspects to trial. Belgium’s colonial past has also brought transnational judicial and extrajudicial entanglements, from the international campaign against the atrocities committed in the Congo Free State at the start of the Twentieth century to the trials in Brussels in the early twenty-first century of individuals suspected of complicity in genocide in the former Belgian mandate Rwanda. The specificities of the Belgian experience over more than a century have produced a wide range of legal documentation and trial records that is of particular relevance to the wider world. 

Proposed panels

1. Belgian judicial sources: the challenges of the digital age

Belgian war crimes and genocide trials have left a little known heritage, in spite of their international dimension. This panel will offer a reflection on contextualized digitization and on the possibilities offered by on-line access to archives. Yet, the progressive massive digitization of collections is a relatively recent phenomenon presenting us with technical and organizational challenges. How can we meet the challenges of digitized collections? How can digital sources be made accessible through databases without blurring their original context of production? How do we integrate contextual information into the description of records, preserving a historical density despite the loss of materiality? How do we combine an increased access to judicial archives with the restrictions commanded by the legislation on the protection of privacy? 

2. Belgian judicial sources: the methodological challenges for the social and legal sciences

Different disciplines have very different uses of judicial sources. Legal scholars and practitioners often tend to reduce historical trials to mere jurisprudence, disregarding the historical context of the crime on trial and the court producing the verdict. Historians and social scientists often tend to consider court records as just a convenient set of testimonies, disregarding the legal and procedural context in which they have been produced. How do scholars working on judicial sources cope with the different filters that stand between the sources they work on and the events and processes they study? How can we gain a better understanding of the judicial strategies that cause investigating judges to focus their investigations on targets that meet the legal categories available for indictment? How can we measure the difference between the narratives on record and the part of human experience that went unrecorded? And how do researchers cope as humans when delving into some of the most inhuman atrocities history has in store? 

3. Judicial actors at work

Most of the literature concerning international humanitarian law and international criminal justice adopts a legal perspective, paying little attention to the contribution of judicial actors. Yet, because they play an essential role in the prosecution of offenses and the interpretation of a recent and evolving legislation, their voluntarism or abstention largely determines the implementation of international law/justice and its evolution. This panel will focus on how judicial actors (judges, lawyers and experts) operate in these contexts.

These issues, faced by actors today, already arose in Belgium during the First World War which saw judicial actors suddenly confronted with unfamiliar occupation law and the issue of war crimes, a situation that recurred in the next conflict and was reversed during the Belgian occupations of Germany after both conflicts. Belgian lawyers also played leading roles as practitioners in international courts set up in the Twentieth century while others strongly influenced the debate on universal jurisdiction. 

4. Extra-judicial actors at work

How are processes of extra-judicial documentation gathering and war crimes trials interrelated? At the junction of the judicial and non-judicial sphere, this panel proposes to explore the circulation of actors, information and testimonies beyond – and sometimes instead of – the trial. It seeks to examine the paths taken by political, non-governmental or associative actors in the wake of war and crimes against humanity. How do experts – historians, anthropologists, human rights activists or legal scholars – assume an investigative role, by drafting reports, collecting testimonies or initiating inquiry commissions? What is the role of victim associations in the unfolding of post-war trials all along the Twentieth century? How can we map networks of militancy and systematic documentation gathering beyond Belgian boundaries and their impact on national dynamics? 

5. The circulation of ideas and practices: a cumulative process?

The history of international law as written by legal scholars often offers a linear narrative of human progress towards a better articulation of legal norms, towards ever more justice and peace. “Historical trials” are reduced to simple stepping stones on the road culminating in the creation of the International Criminal Court. Historians tend to introduce contingency and discontinuity into this narrative, of unintended outcomes, of a course affected by external dynamics rather than guided by its internal coherence. The emergence of an international order whereby justice is not only limited to the exercise of sovereignty within the borders of the Nation State, is however undeniably a cumulative process, especially in the Belgian case. What were the lessons learned from the failure of the Leipzig Trials and the set of trials organised in absentia after 1918? What did the jurisprudence of the late 1940s add in terms of procedures, legal qualifications and international cooperation? What was the interaction between the various revisions of, for instance, the different Geneva Conventions, and the difficulties encountered in the courtroom in judging unprecedented crimes? How did contemporaries reconcile their ambition to improve legal protection after European wars with the concern not to curtail their own options in the colony? Did practitioners, in the 1940s, in the 1990s, ground their legal framework, their investigations, their procedural approach and their final verdicts on their familiarity with national and international judicial precedent? Who and what were the agents of transmission: personal contact and charisma, a national or international spirit of militancy, institutional or academic cultures, published case-law? 

6. National Courts, international justice: convergence and competition

This last panel focuses on the legal and institutional contribution of the national jurisdictions to international humanitarian law. When and how do the Belgian jurisdictions refer to The Hague and Geneva conventions after the World Wars, and later in theTwentieth century? What is the impact of these national trials on the discussions on the establishment of an international criminal court (in 1919 in Versailles, or since 1945, before and after Nuremberg)? What are the political and legal consequences of war crimes trials at the national level, especially in the case of the repression of Nazi crimes (Falkenhausen or Breendonk trials in Belgium, other examples in France and Germany)? Later in the Twentieth century, Belgium played a pioneering role in the debates on universal jurisdiction. Rwandans accused of participation in the 1994 genocide were brought to trial in Brussels and complaints were filed against heads of state (the most famous case concerning Ariel Sharon in 2003, prime minister of Israel at that time). What was the long-term impact of the Belgian militancy for international jurisdiction in the 1990s on international humanitarian law and on subsequent initiatives, such as the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, or the case Congo vs. Belgium before the International Court of Justice? In how far did the Belgian experience contribute to the theory of complementarity between national courts and international criminal justice? 

Submission of paper proposals

The (new) deadline for proposals is

10 December 2015.

Proposals (between 500 and 1000 words) with a short biography should be sent to defeatingimpunity@gmail.com

The conference will be conducted in English. Selected proceedings of the conference will be published.

The international conference will take place at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, Brussels, 9-10 March 2016

For further information: http://www.bejust.be 

Organizing committee

  • Pierre-Olivier de Broux (USLB),
  • Thomas Graditzky (ULB),
  • Pieter Lagrou (ULB),
  • Ornella Rovetta (ULB).

Scientific Committee

  • Mélanie Bost (CegeSoma/RMA),
  • Pierre-Olivier de Broux (USLB),
  • Thomas Graditzky (ULB),
  • Helen Grevers (UGent),
  • Stanislas Horvat (RMA),
  • Pieter Lagrou (ULB),
  • Herbert Reinke (HU Berlin),
  • Xavier Rousseaux (UCL),
  • Ornella Rovetta (ULB),
  • Caroline Six (State Archives),
  • Nico Wouters (CegeSoma),
  • Jonas Campion (UCL),
  • Veerle Massin (UCL),
  • Pierre-Alain Tallier (State Archives/ULB).


  • Université Libre de Bruxelles
    Brussels, Belgium


  • Thursday, December 10, 2015


  • international law, judicial archives, trials, judicial actors, post-war justice

Reference Urls

Information source

  • Ornella Rovetta
    courriel : ornella [dot] rovetta [at] ulb [dot] ac [dot] be


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« Defeating impunity, promoting international justice », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Wednesday, December 02, 2015, https://calenda.org/349134

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