Alumnus/Alumna of the Month

Kaoru Okuizumi '95

Read an Interview with Kaoru Okuizumi.

Since obtaining her J.D. from the New York University School of Law in 1995 and an M.P.A. from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public & International Affairs of Princeton University in 1997, Okuizumi has been working in the fields of international criminal, humanitarian and human rights law. Her first assignment was as a Human Rights Officer with the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Eastern Slavonia , Baranja and Western Sirmium (UNTAES), where she assisted in efforts to ensure the peaceful reintegration of the region into Croatia . In 1998 she moved to Bosnia , where she worked with international and national judges and lawyers at the Human Rights Chamber for Bosnia and Herzegovina , a court established under the Dayton Peace Accords to adjudicate human rights violations in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights. Later that year, Okuizumi returned to the United Nations to investigate human rights violations committed by Bosnian law enforcement officials as Chief of the Human Rights Investigations Desk of the UN Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina (UNMIBH). From 2000 to 2002, Okuizumi worked at the Registry Legal Advisory Section of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in the Netherlands.

In 2002, Okuizumi joined the Department of Justice of the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). As Chief of the Department’s Legal Policy Unit, she advised the Director of the Department on legal and policy matters relating to the justice system of Kosovo, drafted and reviewed regulations and other legislation, and also facilitated legal assistance between Kosovo and other countries on criminal and civil matters. From 2003 – 2005, she served as Legal Advisor to the Registrar of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, a war crimes court created jointly by the United Nations and the Government of Sierra Leone. Most recently, Okuizumi worked in the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC) on matters relating to sexual exploitation and abuse committed by UN personnel. In January 2006, she will begin a new assignment as Legal Advisor with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Nepal.

Okuizumi is on the Board of Directors of the International Criminal Services Foundation, a new non-governmental organization (NGO) based in The Hague. Her articles on international human rights and humanitarian law have appeared in the Asian Wall Street Journal, Human Rights Quarterly, New YorkUniversity Journal of International Law & Politics,Transnational Law & Contemporary Problems and other publications.


Interview with Alumnus/Alumna of the Month

Kaoru Okuizumi '95

What is your area of specialization and how did you come to work in this area?
My specialization is international criminal, humanitarian and human rights law. After college, I worked at a foreign policy think tank in Washington, D.C. Although it wasn't formally part of my work there, I became interested in international human rights and wrote a newspaper op-ed arguing that the Japanese government should be more active in promoting human rights through its foreign policy. I was then shocked to be contacted by a leading international human rights non-governmental organization (NGO) for advice. That was the moment that I started practicing in this area!

Having served on both international tribunals and "hybrid" courts, do you believe that "hybrid" courts, such as those in Kosovo and Sierra Leone are more effective than international tribunals, such as the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY) or Rwanda (ICTR)? And if so, why?
There is no question that all of these institutions have been effective in that they have held individuals accountable for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in accordance with international standards of fair trial and due process. They have also made tremendous contributions to the development of the international criminal justice system over the last decade. Impunity for international crimes is no longer acceptable, as reflected in the creation of the International Criminal Court and calls for the creation of new hybrid courts elsewhere, as well as the increasing number of national courts exercising universal jurisdiction over international crimes. At the same time, trials carried out by international and hybrid courts concern a relatively limited number of defendants. It is therefore crucial that the work of these courts is complemented by efforts to strengthen domestic justice systems and establish alternative accountability mechanisms such as truth commissions.

In terms of efficiency, it has been argued that hybrid courts are much “leaner” than international courts. For example, the Special Court for Sierra Leone has a fraction of the staff and budget of the ICTR, and is expected to have a much shorter lifespan. But the Special Court also has a much smaller caseload and has also been able to learn and benefit greatly from the ground-setting work and experiences of the ICTR and the ICTY.

Do you believe the International Criminal Court (ICC) is effective against war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide without the ratification of the Rome Statute by such significant countries as the U.S., Russia, China and India?
Despite the opposition of such countries to the ICC, it should be remembered that there are currently 99 State Parties to the Rome Statute and that additional countries are in the process of becoming State Parties. Moreover, the opposition of certain permanent members of the Security Council to the ICC didn’t prevent the Security Council from referring the situation in Sudan to the Prosecutor of the ICC. It is essential, of course, for countries to recognize and cooperate with the ICC for it to fully carry out its functions. All of the international and hybrid courts have faced significant challenges in this regard; for example, Nigeria’s refusal to hand over former Liberian President Charles Taylor to the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the inability of the ICTR to gain custody of inductees who have taken refuge in the Democratic Republic of Congo. At the same time, countries as well as organizations have provided considerable cooperation and support to the efforts of the international and hybrid tribunals, both publicly and behind the scenes. I am optimistic that in the future there will be greater, not less, cooperation.

What is the greatest challenge upon entering into war-torn countries where crimes have been committed and justice systems are non-existent or weakened? Do you find that the attitudes of the people are suspicious of these special courts or do they tend to believe that justice will be served?
The challenge in such situations is to conduct trials for crimes committed during the conflict in a way that is fair and is perceived to be fair. There may be some suspicion or skepticism, but international judges and prosecutors have also been welcomed – for example, by the general public who believes that the local judiciary may lack independence and impartiality, by local judges and prosecutors who may otherwise be subject to overwhelming threats or political pressure and by the accused themselves, who believe that their rights may be better protected. Another key challenge is to ensure the immediate and long-term protection of witnesses, many of whom have suffered greatly during the conflict and who may put themselves at considerable risk by testifying but without whom trials would not be possible.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
There are so many rewarding aspects, but the most rewarding is being able to contribute to a process which brings justice for victims while respecting the rights of the accused, and which will hopefully prevent others from becoming victims in the future. I also enjoy the variety in my work, which has ranged from investigating human rights violations to drafting judgments, negotiating bilateral treaties and analyzing complex crimes. And I really treasure the opportunity to meet and work with people from so many different places and backgrounds – and to run into them again in a completely different place.

What was your first job out of law school?
After law school, I immediately entered a Masters Program at Princeton University ’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public & International Affairs. My first job after that was as a Human Rights Officer with UNTAES, the UN peacekeeping operation in Eastern Slavonia , Baranja and Western Sirmium . UNTAES was mandated to ensure the peaceful re-integration of the region into Croatia and facilitate the return of Croatian Serb displaced persons and refugees to their homes. When Croatian authorities tried to intimidate Croatian Serbs from remaining in or returning to Croatia, I was able to intervene as a Human Rights Officer by making arbitrary arrests, obstructing the resolution of property issues, and refusing to issue official documents (such as citizenship documents, ID cards and passports). I was also responsible for monitoring conditions at the local prison.

Since earning your J.D. in 1995 your work has taken you to the former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and soon Nepal -how do you balance work and life?
I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have had the professional opportunities that I’ve had, but it’s definitely been a struggle to have a personal life. I think this is true for many of my friends and colleagues who are doing this kind of work. I met my husband during my first UN assignment, and we’ve since managed to be assigned to the same duty station several times. Unfortunately, these have always been for short periods—we’ve actually spent more time apart than together!

Can you tell us the purpose of the International Criminal Law Services Foundation (ICLS) and what your involvement is?
ICLS is a new non-governmental organization (NGO) based in The Hague . It provides legal expertise and technical assistance to national and hybrid courts to enable them to carry out trials for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. It was created by friends working for international criminal justice who recognized that some countries may be willing to carry out domestic trials for violations of international criminal and humanitarian law, but lack the ability to do so. ICLS will provide training, support and advice to judges, prosecutors, defence counsel, court administrators, government agencies and other NGOs to support national and hybrid judicial mechanisms. Through its activities, ICLS aims to facilitate the ICC’s “complementarity” principle, under which national courts retain jurisdiction for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, and the ICC acts only when countries are unwilling or unable to investigate or prosecute. As one of the Directors of ICLS, I’ve been helping to set it up.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
In 10 years, I hope to still be doing something that is challenging, relevant and meaningful. As to exactly what I’ll be doing and where I’ll be, I have no idea!