Trials in turmoil

NIACs (non-international armed conflicts or civil wars) have become more common and more complex over the past few decades. During times of non-international armed conflict, people living in the countries affected often have no access to fair and unbiased justice systems.

An NIAC is generally understood as an armed conflict between a State and insurgent forces or non-State armed groups, or between non-State armed groups, such as in the 2006 conflict in Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah, various wars in central Africa in recent years and - closer to home - aspects of the conflict which followed the break-up of Yugoslavia. 

Despite the increasing frequency of such conflicts, there is still a lack of standards or protocol surrounding judicial proceedings by courts established by non-State groups. 

Professor Iain Scobbie

Professor Iain Scobbie

Chair in International Law

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Due to a genuine lack of accountability, any hope of a fair hearing in these situations is uncertain at best. 

To begin to address this issue, the Manchester International Law Centre (MILC) has assembled a team which is working with the Syrian Legal Development Programme (SLDP) and Lawyers for Justice in Libya on a pivotal study that will lead to the preparation of guidelines for judicial processes in NIACs.

Lead researcher Dr Antoine Kaboré, a visiting research fellow at MILC, is working closely on this project with Ibrahim Olabi, a former law student at Manchester who established the SLDP, under the supervision of the MILC Co-Directors, Professors Jean d’Aspremont and Iain Scobbie.

Iain describes the scope of the project: 

“The project doesn’t focus only on criminal trials – it covers civil cases as well. Just because a territory is undergoing a NIAC doesn’t mean other legal problems stop. People can still be involved in contractual disputes, disputes about divorce or child custody or, for that matter, disputes that arise from death and the disposition of property, apart from questions of criminal activity. We’re looking at ways to guarantee that, whatever the type of case, the ruling is unbiased.” 

State systems surrounding fair trials and justice are particularly vulnerable to falling apart when a territory is controlled by a non-State armed group, and if people can’t solve their disputes by themselves, it’s important that there is some kind of interim mechanism in place to help them achieve a fair outcome.

A soldier's hand holding a military helmet

Systems surrounding fair trials and justice can fall apart when a territory is controlled by an armed group.

The project hopes to address practical and institutional issues, such as how to select and train judges during a NIAC, and indeed, how to ensure they are competent. They’ll also be identifying specific standards procedures that need to be in place at all times, whatever the political situation, to make sure proceedings are fair for all involved. 

The guidelines produced as part of this project will aim to address the current gap in international instruments:

“Just because a territory is undergoing a NIAC doesn’t mean other legal problems stop.”

Iain says: “We need to formulate best practice standards for these courts, so that they can provide a fair and unbiased judicial process which the local population can trust. And obviously, in criminal trials, there have to be human rights guarantees in place – not simply for the accused but also for witnesses and victims.” 

“Simply by formulating a picture of best practice, it establishes standards which we hope will become standards of the behaviour expected from non-State armed groups.

“And that isn’t naive or idealist – we have contacts with and practical support from groups which are experienced in working with non-State armed groups on legal matters, and we’re confident they’ll get the message across and that people living in NIACs will have better access to equitable justice systems that they can trust.”