Defense Perspectives on Law and Politics in International Criminal Trials

67 Pages Posted: 21 Mar 2008 Last revised: 17 Dec 2008

See all articles by Jenia Iontcheva Turner

Jenia Iontcheva Turner

Southern Methodist University - Dedman School of Law


As international criminal trials become more prominent, a fundamental question persists about their purposes: Are the goals of international criminal trials primarily legal, similar to the objectives of domestic trials, or are they primarily political, such as helping communities heal and compiling an accurate record of the past? Courts and commentators often acknowledge both legal and political purposes of international criminal trials, but fail to prioritize among them. This paper examines the purposes of international criminal trials through the perspectives of an overlooked, but important, participant in these trials¿the defense attorney. Through personal interviews, scholarly articles, and case law, I analyze the attorneys' motivations, strategies, and tactics in representing accused war criminals. In particular, I ask whether defense attorneys believe that international trials serve primarily adjudicative or primarily political purposes.

The survey finds that defense attorneys believe that these trials are much farther from being constructed primarily to satisfy political purposes and much nearer to being truly adjudicative proceedings whose crucial function is to separate those who are blameworthy from those who are not. Defense attorneys believe that a good number of their clients are innocent and that acquittals are possible. Their perceptions, I argue, are not merely inevitable products of their role, but are supported by an increasing number of acquittals, dismissals, and vigorous debates about liability doctrines and rules of procedure. Finally, and contrary to some perceptions, most defense attorneys do not view political statements or attacks as appropriate tactics in international criminal trials and instead focus on factual and legal challenges to the prosecution's case.

The perceptions of those who participate in the trials say something about what kind of proceedings these are. Even as international trials retain their unique political importance, the attitudes of those actually engaged in them reflect their character as increasingly adjudicative proceedings, with separation of the guilty from the innocent as the central purpose. Importantly, as key players in the trials, defense attorneys not only reflect, but also influence the proceedings, shifting them toward the adjudicative model.

Of course, fully contested, adversarial trials serve both legal and political purposes. But to the extent that these purposes occasionally come into conflict - where, for example, political purposes such as efficient closure and establishment of a historical record might recommend one set of procedures, and classic legal principles might recommend another - the debate becomes important. If international criminal trials increasingly serve the same adjudicative purposes as domestic trials, then the procedures of the tribunals and the actions of the participants will adjust accordingly. The perceptions of defense attorneys provide a signal that international criminal trials are moving in this direction.

Keywords: international criminal law, criminal defense, defense attorney, political trial, international criminal trial, ICTY, ICTR, transitional justice

JEL Classification: K14, K33, K42

Suggested Citation

Turner, Jenia Iontcheva, Defense Perspectives on Law and Politics in International Criminal Trials. Virginia Journal of International Law, Vol. 48, No. 3, 2008, SMU Dedman School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 00-25, Available at SSRN:

Jenia Iontcheva Turner (Contact Author)

Southern Methodist University - Dedman School of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 750116
Dallas, TX 75275
United States

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