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What does justice look like? An interview with EUI Law Professor Sarah Nouwen

Posted on 30 September 2020

Sarah Nouwen is Professor of Public International Law and editor-in-chief of the European Journal of International Law. In a recent interview, she discusses how fieldwork in Sudan and Uganda transformed how she thinks of justice.

What does justice look like? It is a question Dr. Sarah Nouwen has been grappling with ever since she worked in Sudan and Uganda, where she researched the impact of the International Criminal Court.


Professor Sarah Nouwen joined the EUI's Law Department this September.

Established in 2002, the International Criminal Court is a permanent institution that tackles genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

“If you read about the International Criminal Court, very often the justification for the entire enterprise is the victims,” Dr. Nouwen says. “Often phrases such as we do this for the victims or the victims want justice are floated around an international context.”

However, little time is given to discuss what justice would look like in local contexts.

What she found working in Sudan and Uganda, is that often the victims’ idea of justice has little to do with a courtroom in The Hague. Rather, victims demand that justice hit closer to home.

“Yes, accountability,” says Dr. Nouwen, “but come here in the community and confess what you did, […] or live with those whose ears you have chopped off, rather than in a luxurious cell with air conditioning in The Hague”.

It is a set of experiences that has fundamentally challenged her legal education. “Even though it was never made explicit, the assumption in all our law studies in the late 1990s and early 2000s was that law was a force for peace and a force for justice.”  she says.

Whereas the two concepts are inevitably closely linked, working in diplomacy in Africa first exposed the cracks in this way of thinking.

What followed next was almost a philosophical exercise that shaped her research, as she re-examined the ideas underpinning her approach to her interlocutors. “The moment that you come, as a white person, to Africa, you bring with you associations, history, assumptions… and I have those assumptions because of the way I have been educated, the stories I have been read as a child and so on.” She also faced the assumptions her interlocutors would have about her, coming from a wealthy, European country.

The relationship the governments of each country had with the ICC also shaped her research experience. While officials in Uganda were very open, in Sudan, explicitly mentioning the ICC was dangerous. In order to carry out her research, she stated that she was looking at the broader interaction between international and national law. Doing so allowed her to strike a balance between the safety of herself and her contacts and the need to clearly state the object of her research, a key principle of academic ethics.

Dealing with human rights abuses meant being careful not to jeopardise the safety of her contacts in Sudan and Uganda. “As a Western researcher you are pretty privileged, because of your network of contacts, you can almost always take a plane out”. It is a luxury her sources in Africa did not have and that motivated her to move with extra caution.

“What I have tried is to adopt and promote an ethos of humility [as a researcher]” she says. “I am here to learn and that’s what I love about academia, I am not here to recommend.”

Now at the EUI, she is taking her ethos of humility forward, expanding her earlier research. While still challenging assumptions and adopting an empirical approach, she now looks forward to branching out from criminal law into other areas that impact peace negotiations.