Following the confirmation of the 50 year sentence of Charles Taylor, there is a tone of celebration from a number of human rights organisations. One expression that has struck me as problematic is that of this verdict being a "victory for justice", as seen for example in this tweet by Human Rights Watch executive director:
A major victory for justice--and his many victims--that Charles Taylor conviction upheld. http://t.co/UzriokJFrI"On a certain level, I of course understand what he means. This verdict is seen as vindication for some of the victims of the Sierra Leone conflict and in this sense constitutes "justice". However, I think that the expression is disturbing in what it says on the state of mind of those who use it.
— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) September 26, 2013
Indeed, technically, if you trust the legal system, a conviction is no more a "victory for justice" than an acquittal would be. It is the system that must be seen as just, irrespective of the particular outcome in a given case. If we do not accept that acquittals are an option, then there is no point in pretending to want a system of international criminal justice, with a strong protection of the rights of the defense. We might as well reintroduce summary executions, which, I'm sure would satisfy some victims just as much.
On the substance, I'm not entirely sure how much of a "victory for justice" it is, when you see the systematic violations of the rights of the defense in international criminal proceedings. The acts that are being prosecuted are the most heinous crimes that affect the "conscience of humanity", and the highest standards of evidence should be imposed, rather than the lowest ones, as is sometimes the case.
Attachment to these high standards of justice in the respect of the rights of the defense should be the first concern of all people involved in this field, because it is at the heart of the international criminal justice project. Without a fair trial, there cannot be, on the long run, any victory for justice.