Academic story

A Linguist’s View of the International Criminal Court

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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 collaborating with colleagues from different disciplines, from anthropology to sociology to legal studies. The emphasis on collaboration in Sigurd's work mirrors that of JYU's Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, which was one of the reasons that Sigurd was attracted to JYU. “At 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," he says, "At Jyväskylä, because of its interdisciplinary orientation, the kind of research I do connects more easily with what other colleagues are doing. Jyväskylä is a very fruitful environment for this kind of interdisciplinary research.” Sigurd’s research career, which has encompassed diverse areas such as Swahili conversation, East African popular culture and intercultural communication in courtrooms, has always 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

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.” The multiplicity of perspectives found on campus makes for a vibrant and dynamic research community. Sigurd is struck by the fact that the university produces such high-quality, high-level research while also allowing its employees to maintain a healthy work-life balance. “That's a very strong combination," he says. “We have lateral communication, high-quality research, a collaborative environment, and good work-life balance. Overall it's a very pleasant place to work.”

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Published 2021-12-21

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Sigurd D’hondt

Sigurd is an associate professor of applied linguistics at the University of Jyväskylä. He is the principal investigator of the project Negotiating International Criminal Law: A courtroom ethnography of trial performance at the International Criminal Court.

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