Berkeley’s Prestigious War Crimes Studies Center moving to UH Law School, History Department, and East-West Center

November 7, 2012

Professor David Cohen – a foremost international authority on war crimes trials – is bringing the War Crimes Studies Center he founded in 2000 at the University of California-Berkeley to the University of Hawai‘i.

While the War Crimes Studies Center will continue to have an office on the West Coast, it will eventually be physically located in Hawai‘i.

The move launches a new relationship for Cohen with the William S. Richardson School of Law and the History Department at UH, as well as strengthening his long-time association with the East-West Center.

He will be a Professor at the Law School and he will continue as a Senior Fellow in International Law at the EWC. Cohen will be based primarily at Burns Hall at the EWC, but he also has offices at the Law School and at the History Department. Cohen is already leading a graduate seminar jointly for the Law School and History Department called “War Crimes Trials in Historical Perspective.”

“This is an unprecedented honor for our Law School, for the entire university, and for the community at large,” said Law Dean Avi Soifer. “Having a professor of Cohen’s stature with us will offer students and faculty exciting opportunities to study the aftermath of national conflicts as well as to become involved in current international tribunals and in research on those of the past.”

Richardson Law students have already been involved in assisting with monitoring on-going trials in Cambodia, Cohen said, adding, “I would like to increasingly involve the Law School in our projects.”

With Cohen at the Law School, plans are moving forward to add a human rights specialization to the curriculum offered to foreign attorneys as part of the unique LLM degree program at Richardson. This program attracts lawyers from around the world for a year of additional study, specializing in Asia and the Pacific and other subjects as well as studying American law. Cohen said he hopes the new human rights specialty will be in place by the 2013-14 academic year.

Cohen sees his work as integral not simply pertaining to a particular country but in the international arena.

“It’s important for the international community to be aware of these justice processes in part because one of the goals is to deter others from committing these kinds of crimes. If there’s no process of accountability then you’re not going to contribute to eliminating impunity and deterring others.”

Cohen founded the Center at the UC – Berkeley, and it has played a defining role in setting up and monitoring criminal tribunals to resolve contemporary conflicts. He has been deeply involved in recent and current war crimes trials in both East Timor and Cambodia, as well as in Sierra Leone and Indonesia, and in continuing research to gather documents on war crimes trials in the wake of World War II.

“We do work in Africa, but our primary focus and much of our work is done in Southeast Asia and now South Asia,” said Cohen. “We’ve started trial monitoring in Bangladesh so we’ll be there as well. Being based in the Pacific, and with the close connections to Asia that both the Law School and the East-West Center have, this is of value to the Center and it is also good for promoting long-term collaboration.”

Cohen received his JD from the University of California, Los Angeles; his PhD in classics and ancient history from Cambridge University; and an Honorary Doctorate in Law from the University of Zurich. He has been teaching at UC-Berkeley since 1979, where he was the Ancker Distinguished Professor for the Humanities. He has collaborated since 2000 with the East-West Center on human rights projects in Asia.

His research on war crimes tribunals began with a project in the mid-1990s to gather records of national war crimes programs conducted in 20 countries in both Europe and Asia following World War II. While the Nuremberg trials brought many Nazi war criminals to justice, those were just a few of the trials seeking retroactive justice. Unfortunately, many of those historical documents have been difficult to find, with many sealed by the governments involved.

His work has helped launch several initiatives, including:

  • Creation of the Documentation Center for War Crimes Trials at the Max Plank Institute for European Legal History in Frankfurt, co-directed by Cohen and Prof. Dieter Simon;
  • A follow-on Center at the University of Marburg, also created by Cohen and Simon;
  • Cohen’s War Crimes Studies Center founded at UC-Berkeley.
  • An annual Summer Institute in International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, now in its 6th year, in partnership with the East-West Center. It is the only such summer program held annually in SE Asia, with a focus each year on issues of particular importance to the region.
  • The Human Rights Resource Center for ASEAN, a SE Asia university network with its base at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta. Cohen was part of the core group that planned and founded the Center and now serves as its Advisor.

Cohen has already spent a number of years at the East-West Center and he has become a familiar face on the UH campus. At the EWC he serves as Director of the Asian International Justice Initiative as well as Senior Fellow in International Law. He has been particularly involved in assisting, advising, and training people to support the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) that is handling war crimes trials covering the Pol Pot regime, as well as supporting judicial reform and human rights initiatives in Indonesia since 1993.

Cohen has conducted training programs for both international and Cambodian judges, for investigating judges and prosecutors, and for the Cambodian defense counsel. He has also been involved in monitoring trial proceedings and in developing a Virtual Tribunal - an interactive multimedia educational software platform allowing the trial archives to be accessible both to the Cambodian public and to the world at large.

“We have a weekly TV and radio show in Cambodia and get about 1.5 million viewers weekly. It helps inform the Cambodian public about what’s happening in the Khmer Rouge trials going on there. We’re the only TV station that covers it,” he explained.

The trials are expected to continue for another three to four years. One senior leader has already been tried, three more are on trial now and another five are under investigation, Cohen said.

Along with offering important additions to the curriculum at the University of Hawai‘i, the War Crimes Studies Center will make Cohen’s work more accessible to Pacific and ASEAN areas with high stakes in the outcomes of the tribunals. It will also give him closer proximity to the Indonesian Judiciary, with which he has been deeply involved through conducting human rights training for judges, prosecutors, police, and officials of the National Human Rights Commission. He will continue to assist the Human Rights Resource Center in developing its university based human rights network in ASEAN and in advising on its research projects.