Virtual Tribunals Initiative - Pilot Collection

About the Initiative

A collaboration with the Stanford University Libraries, the Virtual Tribunals project is a major initiative of the Center, which aims to compile a comprehensive database of international criminal tribunal records, from the post-WWII cases through the contemporary tribunals, fully digitized, and rendered searchable through a single online portal. The Virtual Tribunals platform would facilitate free access to the single most comprehensive database of archival material from the tribunals and truth commissions established in the wake of mass atrocities around the globe. The search function in the Virtual Tribunal would make the discovery of multilingual and multimedia materials far easier and more efficient for both legally trained and non-expert users, so these historic collections could have a much wider impact on educational institutions and lay-audiences, including populations directly affected by conflict or living in relevant diaspora communities. In addition, as noted above, the collection would provide a home for digital documentation (and in some cases original documents) that would otherwise be at risk because of a lack of infrastructure and expertise or from political interference. This project takes seriously the question of how temporary institutions might leave behind a legacy that will be of lasting value for scholars, experts, and international students, as well as for the people of the post-conflict societies in whose name these tribunals have been pursuing justice.

The idea for the project arose out of the Center's early work, since 1999, collecting and analyzing the records of the manifold national war crimes programs that prosecuted German and Japanese defendants throughout Europe and the Asia-Pacific region in the aftermath of WWII. That mission soon expanded to provide support for institutions, such as the UN Special Panels for Serious Crimes in East Timor, lacking the capacity to preserve and make accessible the digital archive of their proceedings.  At the conclusion of the Serious Crimes Trials in East Timor, the Center agreed to provide an electronic archive for all of the judgments, indictments, and other documents from the proceedings. Also at the request of Court personnel, the Center took over and agreed to maintain the website of the prosecution office, the Serious Crimes Unit (SCU) in Dili.  These two archives comprised our first contemporary tribunal collections. Based on our increasing reputation in this area, other opportunities continually arise, most recently to work with all of the contemporary major international tribunals in the Hague, Africa, and Asia, as well as with institutions like the Hague Peace Palace that house historical collections, so as to create the global resource described above. The capacity for the Center to seize this opportunity has been greatly enhanced through its ongoing partnership with the Stanford University Libraries under the direction of University Librarian Michael Keller. By providing a rich and well-designed discovery environment, this technology assists researchers with diverse disciplinary interests to do comparative analysis across tribunal collections, a process that is currently onerous. 

Origin of the East Timor Collections

In response to widespread violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in East Timor, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1272.  The International body expressed its concern at "reports indicating that systematic, stressing that persons committing such violations bear individual responsibility, and calling on all parties to cooperate with investigations into these reports," demanding "that those responsible for such violence be brought to justice." In an effort to fulfill the call for justice in Resolution 1272, United Nations Transitional Authority in East Timor (UNTAET) established the Serious Crimes Unit (SCU) to investigate and prosecute War Crimes, Crimes against Humanity, and individual offenses of murder, torture, and rape committed in East Timor between 1 January and 25 October 1999. All charges brought by the SCU were tried before one of the Special Panels of Serious Crimes, each of which is comprised of two international judges and one East Timorese judge.

The trials before the Special Panel for Serious Crimes in East Timor form an important part of the ongoing global enterprise aimed at providing accountability for major violations of international humanitarian law. They also provide a cornerstone of the historical record of the 1999 violence in East Timor. Although they received scant international media attention while they were being conducted, the jurisprudence of these trials, the historical documentation they contain, and their contribution to contemporary efforts towards achieving international justice, deserve serious public attention. The Center began engaging in East Timor in 2001, with Director David Cohen serving as Expert Advisor to the Commission for Truth and Friendship for Timor-Leste and Indonesia, and leading a research team that carried out extensive research at the SCU and CAVR. 

Indictment and Judgment Archive, Special Panels for Serious Crimes 

On May 20, 2005, the Special Panel for Serious Crimes (SPSC) completed more than four years of trials arising from crimes committed during the 1999 violence following the referendum in which East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia. 

Although the work of the SPSC was cut short by a decision of the United Nations to end the UNMISET missions of which it was a part, it completed 55 trials, most involving relatively low-level defendants. In the course of these trials, 84 individuals were convicted and 3 acquitted. Detailed reports about many of these cases can be found at the website of the Judicial System Monitoring Program, which monitored the activities of the Special Panel on an ongoing basis. By arrangement with the SPSC and its coordinating Judge, the Honorable Phillip Rapoza, the Center (then known as the U.C. Berkeley War Crimes Studies Center) agreed to provide continuing public access to electronic copies of official versions, provided by the Tribunal, of indictments, motions, and judgments from these 55 cases. Since the Center relocated to Stanford and began working with the Stanford University Libraries on the Virtual Tribunals initiative, this collection has been accessioned into the Stanford Digital Repository and will be made available online through the Virtual Tribunals platform, to ensure continued public access to these important records.

Serious Crimes Unit Document Archive, Prosecution Section of the SPSC

Through a further agreement with the Deputy Prosecutor General for Serious Crimes, Mr. Carl Da Faria, the Center also agreed to take over and maintain the website of the Serious Crimes Unit (SCU), which was responsible for prosecuting these cases. The website includes a database compiled by the SCU staff that provides information on all of the cases prosecuted in the Serious Crimes process. The original files from the SPSC and SCU were handed over to the government of East Timor and it is uncertain if, when, or under what conditions public access will be provided to them. Although the last activities of the SPSC and SCU came to an end on June 30, 2005, it is vitally important to preserve the legacy of their efforts and achievements in a form easily available to researchers, practitioners, and the general public.