International Trial Monitoring

This program promotes fair trials, accountability, human rights education, and rule of law by monitoring and reporting objectively on tribunal proceedings around the world. The Center has established trial monitoring programs at a number of international criminal courts, including in Cambodia, the East Timor, Indonesia, Sierra Leone, and the Netherlands.

Our Approach

The Center uses trial monitoring as a capacity-building tool through regular and special reports that encourage the adoption of international best practices in human rights proceedings and war crimes trials. Our trial monitoring programs have also served to develop the knowledge and skills of young lawyers and students from Singapore, Cambodia, Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Germany, Switzerland, China, and the United States who have served on our trial monitoring teams over the years. Since 2009, the Center's longest-running trial monitoring effort in Cambodia has produced weekly reports in an effort to provide international and Cambodian audiences with current, analytical information on the proceedings of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). These reports have featured a comprehensive summary of the proceedings, including information on trial management and important legal and procedural issues. Reports are produced by trial monitors who attend every day of trial proceedings, providing thorough coverage of the court hearings. Along with weekly reports, we also produce analytical reports detailing more specific issues that arise during proceedings as well as informational email digests that summarize major elements of the proceedings.

Learn more by accessing our database of trial monitoring publications

East Timor and Indonesia

In 1999, the East Timorese voted to become citizens of an independent state. Independence, first claimed in 1975, came at a high price, exacted over 24 years of Indonesian occupation. Even after the Indonesian government decided in early 1999 to allow the East Timorese to choose between autonomy within Indonesia or independence, supporters of independence suffered systematic violence at the hands of militia groups created and directed by the Indonesian army. The violence intensified before and after the vote for independence on August 30, 1999, and then reached its climax once the outcome was announced. Thousands were killed or injured, hundreds of thousands were displaced, and the systematic and massive destruction of property caused immense damage to the living conditions of an already poor and vulnerable population. The attacks on United Nations personnel, including the killing of several East Timorese staff members, added a special aspect of international concern to what were already clearly crimes against humanity.

The international community was outraged as the media reported the violence. There were calls for an international tribunal to be created to investigate and prosecute the crimes, foremost among them the recommendation of the International Commission of Inquiry mandated by the UN Commission on Human Rights. This was not done, as Indonesia committed itself to ensuring full accountability.  Three post-conflict mechanisms were created to address this period of violence: (1) the Serious Crimes Unit (SCU) of the Special Panels for Serious Crimes (SPSC) in Dili, East Timor; (2) the Ad Hoc Human Rights Court on East Timor in Jakarta, Indonesia; and (3) the Commission on Truth and Friendship of East Timor and Indonesia.  The Center has closely monitored and published critical analyses of the investigative efforts and formal proceedings in all three of these transitional justice efforts.


Peace street art in Dili, East Timor.
Special Panels for Serious Crimes (SPSC) in Dili, East Timor

In 1999, the UN established investigation and trials in Dili, East Timor.  Known as the Special Panels for Serious Crimes (SPSC), these were intended to address the human rights violations occurring prior to the independence of East Timor. the Center monitored trials in 2001 and published reports on the proceedings.  Since 2002, David Cohen has authored two critical reports about the SPSC, both published by the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii, Manoa.  The first of these, "Seeking Justice on the Cheap:  Is the East Timor Tribunal Really a Model for the Future?", was published in August of 2002.  This was followed in May of 2006 with an even more critical retrospective account of the tribunal’s shortcomings, "'Justice on the Cheap' Revisited: The Failure of the Serious Crimes Trials in East Timor."

Human Rights Ad Hoc Court on East Timor in Jakarta, Indonesia

David Cohen monitored the Indonesian Ad Hoc Human Rights Tribunal and the Special Panels for Serious Crimes in East Timor. His report on the Indonesian Trials, Intended to Fail, was published by the International Center for Transitional Justice. Subsequently, the East West Center published his report on the Timor trials, Indifference, and Accountability: The UN and the Politics of International Justice in East Timor. The Center partnered with ELSAM, an Indonesian NGO, to monitor and provide reporting for the trials. This ad hoc court faced many challenges due to the Indonesian government’s opposition to transparency about its invasion of East Timor, causing the death of 200,000 and its historical support of pro-Jakarta militias. The Center's work promoted judicial strength and advocated for the defense of human rights.    

Commission on Truth and Friendship of East Timor and Indonesia

The Commission on Truth and Friendship of East Timor and Indonesia (CTF) was the first bilateral truth commission established by 2 countries to deal with the aftermath of a conflict. The CTF was preceded by two other post-conflict justice institutions—the Special Panels for Serious Crimes in Dili, East Timor, and the Jakarta Ad Hoc Human Rights Court in Indonesia. In addition, a Timorese national truth commission (CAVR) had published a massive report and there had also been an investigation and report by the Indonesia National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM) and by a UN Commission of Experts.

When the presidents of Timor Leste and Indonesia announced in 2005 that they were creating the CTF this move was widely regarded, both internationally and by civil society in both countries, as merely a political maneuver to undermine calls for the creation of a new international tribunal to deal with the 1999 violence. Indeed, the 2 governments both stated that they desired to settle their differences themselves without outside judicial intervention. Despite the widespread rejection of the mandate of the CTF (and in particular the provisions allowing the Commission to recommend amnesty but prohibiting it from recommending prosecution), the Commission proceeded with its work. In 2007-2008 it conducted public hearings, closed hearings, and an extensive review of previous investigations and trials. It completed its report, “Per Memoriam ad Spem” (“From Memory to Hope”)  in May 2008 and officially presented it to the presidents of the 2 countries on July 15, 2008, in Bali.

In regard to the task of analyzing the evidence from previous trials and investigations, the Commission requested the assistance of David Cohen, Director of the War Crimes Studies Center, as its Expert Advisor for international legal issues. With the assistance of a research team including Leigh-Ashley Lipscomb, as well as members of the ELSAM NGO in Jakarta and student interns from UC Berkeley, Cohen prepared two reports for the Commission that analyzed in great detail the evidence supporting charges of crimes against humanity in East Timor. The reports also considered the evidence indicating which institutions bore responsibility for such crimes. The first “Report of the Expert Advisor”, was presented to the Commission in April 2007. The second report, “Addendum to the Report of the Expert Advisor” was received by the Commission in November of that year. These two reports, totaling many hundreds of pages, were accepted in full by the Commission and provided the analytical and evidentiary basis for the conclusions reached in its own report, mentioned above.

Despite the initial misgivings of its critics, in the end the Commission produced a report that has been widely acknowledged as credible and far-reaching. Completely rejecting the notion of amnesty or political rehabilitation for any individuals the Commission found that crimes against humanity had been committed in a highly organized, widespread, and systematic manner in East Timor in 1999. These crimes, the Commission found, included murder, rape, torture, deportation and forcible transfer, and persecution as crimes against humanity. The Commission also found that in addition to the direct role of Indonesian-backed Timorese militias, Indonesian institutions including the army (TNI), police, and civilian government were directly or indirectly involved in every phase of the organization and perpetration of these crimes. Further, the Commission found that despite limited investigations, there was credible evidence to indicate that Timorese institutions were also responsible for illegal detentions and possibly other crimes. On the basis of these findings, the Commission made recommendations for institutional reform in military and security forces, as well as other recommendations to ensure that such violence would not reoccur.

Photo: Street art in Dili; Leigh Ashley Lipscomb

Browse East Timor/Indonesia Reports

Special Court for Sierra Leone

The Special Court was established by treaty in 2002 under a mandate to seek justice for atrocities committed during a complex civil conflict in Sierra Leone.  The eleven-year conflict was marked by acts of severe brutality against the country’s population.  Among the conflict’s most notorious features were widespread amputations, mutilations, acts of sexual violence, mass killing, abduction and forced recruitment into armed groups, the use of child combatants, and the exploitation of Sierra Leone’s diamond reserves to finance the war effort.  In the aftermath of the conflict, there was a strong public desire to hold responsible parties accountable; however, it was clear that the country did not have the necessary judicial infrastructure to hold trials.  In an attempt to bring accountability through the judicial process, the government of Sierra Leone entered into a treaty with the United Nations to create an experimental international court, referred to as a “hybrid tribunal” for its mix of domestic and international elements.  The Special Court For Sierra Leone offered a different judicial model than the ad hoc tribunals for Rwanda and Yugoslavia previously established by the UN Security Council.  Proponents of the court hoped that it would offer a more expeditious approach to post-conflict justice, and argued that the court’s location in the country where the conflict took place would make the proceedings more relevant to the population in whose name the SCSL sought justice. 

The Center established the Special Court trial monitoring program in Freetown, Sierra Leone in June 2004.  Its inauguration coincided with the opening of Trial Chamber I and the commencement of the trial of the three accused alleged to be key leaders of the Civilian Defense Forces.  While our Director, David Cohen had monitored and written about proceedings at the Special Panels for Serious Crimes in East Timor, the permanent monitoring presence established at the Special Court in Freetown was the first of its kind to be undertaken by the Center. Expectations ran very high in the international community for what a temporary, hybrid tribunal could accomplish, but after the acute failures of the SCSL’s predecessor institutions in East Timor and Indonesia, the Center saw a pressing need for close scrutiny. Concerned about the scant attention paid to these experimental international criminal justice institutions between major press releases, the Center was committed to maintaining an ongoing presence at the court.   It was our conviction that only regular attendance at trials, day in and day out, would enable us to influence the Court’s performance through meaningful and robust analysis.

From 2004 to 2009 monitors were stationed at the Special Court’s facilities in Freetown and the Hague, for a period of three months to one year at a time.  Monitors attended trials, conducted research, interviewed Court personnel, and wrote reports about their findings.  Monitors issued regular reports on the daily courtroom proceedings and published numerous special thematic reports evaluating the overall successes and pitfalls of this model of international criminal justice.  The more in-depth thematic reports have addressed such topics as the treatment of child witnesses, the handling of sexual violence charges, and the internal operations of the Court’s Defense Office as well as its Office of the Prosecutor.  

Special Court for Sierra Leone, Taylor Trial, Update 106

Browse Sierra Leone reports

Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), like the Special Court for Sierra Leone, is a hybrid international criminal tribunal, established by treaty.  The ECCC is mandated to try senior leaders and those most responsible for atrocities committed in Cambodia between April 17, 1975, and January 6, 1979, when  Cambodia was governed by the Khmer Rouge.  During this period, the Cambodian people endured extreme hardship and violence.  As many as two million people died.  Many people were executed.  Many others were worked to death, forcibly relocated from their homes, separated from their families, or were victims of torture, starvation, and disease. The Khmer Rouge government was overthrown by the Vietnamese army and the forces of the United Front for the National Salvation of Cambodia on January 7, 1979.  For many years, it was not possible to seek justice in Cambodian courts for Khmer Rouge violence, because of ongoing civil war and political instability.   In 1997, however, the Royal Government of Cambodia sought to establish a special court with the assistance of the United Nations in hopes of trying those Khmer Rouge leaders still alive and living in Cambodia.  The ECCC was created with statutory authority to try defendants for murder, religious persecution, and torture under Cambodian law, as well as genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity under international law.

Building upon prior years of experience monitoring in Sierra Leone, East Timor, Rwanda, and Indonesia, the Center for Human Rights and International Justice collaborated with the East-West Center, established a regionally-based trial monitoring program at the ECCC for the duration of the trials of former Khmer Rouge leaders. The Center's trial monitoring program in Cambodia had two primary aims: (i) to ensure that the tribunal’s proceedings complied with internationally recognized fair trial standards; and (ii) to maximize the educational potential of the work of the tribunal.  We sought to widen public awareness of the ECCC in Cambodia, in the region, and internationally, through the dissemination of weekly trial reports both describing and assessing the proceedings as they unfold. We further endeavored to train young lawyers by giving them the experience of engaging in monitoring and legal analysis at an international tribunal, under expert supervision. The program's monitors produced regular written reports about the proceedings, as well as a huge amount of multimedia community outreach content, including several discrete television series about the various trials, broadcast on major Cambodian networks focusing on Case 001, Case 002 and on issues of sexual violence during the Democratic Kampuchea period across the various trials. With over 4,000 followers on Twitter and Facebook combined, our trial monitoring team also used social media to keep many national and international followers of the ECCC up to date on the daily occurrences of the Court. The Khmer Rouge Tribunal trial monitoring tweets are available at @krtmonitor and Facebook updates are posted on the KRT Trial Monitor page.

Browse Cambodia reports and videos