The Legalization of Truth in International Fact-Finding

82 Pages Posted: 22 Aug 2017

See all articles by Shiri Krebs

Shiri Krebs

Deakin Law School; Stanford Center on International Security and Cooperation (CISAC)

Date Written: August 17, 2017


Do legal judgments influence people’s attitudes and beliefs concerning contested events? This article builds on studies from three disciplines – law, psychology, and political science – and employs experimental methods to shed light on the impact of legal institutions on their intended audiences. The article identifies a rising ‘legalization of truth’ phenomenon – the adoption of legal discourse to construct and interpret facts outside the courthouse. It argues that legal truth, while providing a framework of legal terminology and conventions to analyze and understand facts, comes with a price tag: it triggers cognitive and emotional biases that frustrate efforts to disseminate controversial information and to resolve factual disputes; and it lacks the emotional appeal, participatory value, and social cues that moral expressions or other types of social truth-telling entail.

To demonstrate the legalization of truth process and to measure its impact on attitudes and beliefs, this article focuses on the practice of international fact-finding. In recent years, international fact-finding has become a dominant response to armed conflicts and political violence around the world. Lacking compulsory jurisdiction, international fact-finding bodies have adopted legal discourse, assuming that legal reports uniformly inform the relevant publics with an authoritative account of what happened and motivate domestic sanctioning of in-group offenders.

This article challenges both assumptions. Based on two survey-experiments fielded in 2013 and 2014 on representative samples of 1,000 and 2,000 U.S. nationals, respectively, as well as on an original dataset of U.N. fact-finding missions, the study demonstrates that three elements of legal discourse – binary legal judgment, ‘hot’ legal terminology, and legal frame – harm the perceived credibility and persuasive value of fact-finding reports: the legal judgment of the fact-finding report is likely to trigger cognitive biases and belief polarization; ‘hot’ legal terminology is likely to trigger emotional biases and reduce the perceived fairness of the report; and the legal frame appears to be less effective than moral frame in influencing attitudes on accountability.

Keywords: Fact-finding, experiments, shaming, accountability, law and psychology, truth, war crimes, biases, reports, United Nations, Denial, blame

Suggested Citation

Krebs, Shiri, The Legalization of Truth in International Fact-Finding (August 17, 2017). Chicago Journal of International Law, Vol. 18, No. 1, 2017. Available at SSRN:

Shiri Krebs (Contact Author)

Deakin Law School ( email )

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Stanford Center on International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) ( email )

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