Searching for justice after war

Chimene Keitner LAW ’02, who travelled to Africa with two other Yale Law School students this summer, witnessed firsthand the aftermath of the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

As part of her job collecting war crimes evidence for an upcoming trial at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, Keitner met one man who had been deported from Ethiopia because of his Eritrean heritage. His wife and children were still in Ethiopia and he had just been released from two-and-a-half years of internment at an Ethiopian prison.

“You could still see the scar where his wrist had been broken during an interrogation,” Keitner said. “To see this man come into the office for the faint hope of getting his message to a commission thousands of miles away — not only was his story moving, but also the act of his coming there.”

This summer three Yale Law School students joined law professor Lea Brilmayer in the Northeast African country of Eritrea to collect war crimes evidence to present at the impending Eritrea-Ethiopia war crimes tribunal, which will begin at The Hague sometime this coming year. The trial will help allow the countries to resolve who committed more war crimes and which country should receive recompense.

The students, Keitner, Sonja Starr LAW ’02 and Amanda Jones LAW ’02, collected war crimes evidence for the legal advisor to the office of the president of Eritrea, under fellowships granted by the Law School’s Schell Center for Human Rights. Two more students, Amy Rothschild LAW ’02 and Leslie Abrams LAW ’02, are also working in Eritrea this semester.

The summer students’ jobs ranged from photographing looted and destroyed houses, schools and hospitals to interviewing ethnic Eritreans uprooted and deported from Ethiopia because of their Eritrean heritage.

Brilmayer has been involved with legal matters in Eritrea for the past six years, and spent this past year on sabbatical preparing Eritrea’s cases both for The Hague’s Boundary Commission, responsible for demarcating the final, official boundary between the two countries, and the Claims Commission, which will hear war crimes charges.

The war crimes claims commission, set up following the peace settlement agreed upon by both sides last winter, will hear claims from both Eritrea and Ethiopia accusing the other side of excessive aggression towards civilians.

The December 2000 truce came after more than two years of bitter fighting between the two of the world’s most destitute but nevertheless well-armed nations. Although the fighting broke out officially over border disputes, a complex confluence of economic and nationalist factors contributed to the conflict. Human rights groups have charged both countries with egregious human rights abuses during the war.

Despite this, Starr said that it is no longer important who started the war, but that civilians get paid back for actions that violated the international laws of war.

“The war was stupid — there is really an unbelievable amount of fighting for a small amount of land,” Starr said. “But from our perspective, the laws of war, such as not attacking unarmed civilians, apply regardless of who is most at fault for causing it, and it’s unambiguous that Ethiopia committed a lot of war crimes.”

Starr, Keitner and Jones spent much of their time establishing an office in the war-torn Eritrean village of Senafe, which Ethiopian troops occupied for a time due to its proximity to the disputed border.

The students also visited the village of Serha, which Keitner described as a “ghost town.”

“Not only has everything been looted, but we couldn’t find any traces of life having ever been there,” Keitner said. “I think I came across one boot in the mud, but that was about all that was left.”

The students’ evidence will be added to those collected by other lawyers and law students and will eventually be submitted to the claims commission on Eritrea’s behalf.

This aid comes at a time when the U.S. government has come under international criticism for withdrawing much-needed support for international courts like The Hague. Keitner laments this shift in American policy.

“The major problem is that with a lack of knowledge and understanding, there’s a great tendency towards generalization,” she said. “The Hague is lumped together with the World Court, and the UN and every other organization made of a bunch of different countries in a far away place.”

“But after you scratch the surface, you see the difference in all these organizations,” she added. “There’s a great danger in unilaterally looking at them in the same way, and unilaterally refusing to engage them — with this sort of unilateral skepticism.”

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