CHRGJ Hosts Discussion on the Relevance of Social Science Expertise in International Criminal Courts
April 11, 2016

Criminal JusticeData

On Friday, April 8, the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU School of Law hosted a discussion with Richard Wilson, as part of its Human Rights in Practice Series, which addresses current issues in human rights practice on the basis of groundbreaking scholarship. Wilson is the Gladstein Distinguished Chair of Human Rights and Professor of Law and Anthropology at the University of Connecticut (UConn) Law School, and founding director of the Human Rights Institute at UConn. Wilson’s presentation was based on his current project: Propaganda On Trial: The Law and Social Science of International Speech Crimes, which takes an interdisciplinary approach to shed light on the recent efforts by international courts to prosecute political leaders for inciting genocide and instigating war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Wilson’s discussion evaluated the role empirical knowledge grounded in social science can play in the courtroom. His research examines in detail how international criminal tribunals have handled experts brought in by prosecution and defense lawyers. In his discussion, he addressed the criteria that international courts use to evaluate the admissibility and probative value of expertise.

Through his research, Wilson identified nine categories of expertise that prosecution and defense regularly called on or cited in International Criminal Court proceedings, ranging from forensic and ballistic experts to social scientists and human rights experts. He showed how, despite similarities in terms of how often these different categories of experts are called on, qualitative social research is cited nearly twice as often as quantitative expertise (1133 to 593 citations in his sample). This observation inspired a discussion about why this type of social science evidence is preferred in courtrooms, despite a tendency towards more quantitative methods in the field of social science overall.

Wilson then focused on two specific cases related to speech crimes in which he compared and contrasted the use and effect of quantitative versus qualitative interventions. Comparing the work of Dr. Ruzindana for the ICTR with that of Dr. Oberschall for the ICTY, led him to conclude that judges tend to favor qualitative approaches because this discourse fits pre-existing categories of judges more easily and because it does not challenge pre-existing hierarchies of the courtroom, of which social science is not traditionally part. He also argued that quantitative approaches and their linear understanding of causation fit the logic of ordinary common sense understandings of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ difficulty. As a consequence, he argued, qualitative social expertise has a higher chance of being influential in international criminal courts than quantitative evidence.

In the group discussion that followed, the audience invited Prof. Wilson to talk more about his case selection and to explain some differences that he observed throughout his research. Wilson was also asked about the need for providing more hand on training for both prosecutors and judges as well as about ways in which social science evidence can become an integral part of the judicial process.


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