August 29, 2018

Stanford launches digital library to preserve and broaden access to war crime documents

A new online Virtual Tribunals resource developed by Stanford Libraries in collaboration with the WSD HANDA Center for Human Rights and International Justice has launched, making records from 105 cases investigated by the Special Panel for Serious Crimes (SPSC) in East Timor widely accessible. The SPSC East Timor collection includes final judgments from 55 cases that reached verdict on charges such as murder, rape, and crimes against humanity, all of which have been rendered searchable and assigned a persistent URL in order to remain always accessible despite an ever-changing Web environment. 

Plans are underway to expand the Virtual Tribunals site and incorporate additional collections of international criminal trial records from World War II, as well as post-conflict justice proceedings in Cambodia, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, and others.

Professor David Cohen

“Ensuring public access to the records of international criminal proceedings that deal with mass atrocity is vital both for purposes of accountability, but also for learning from the past and developing policy-oriented research for future international justice undertakings,” said David Cohen, the WSD-HANDA Professor in Human Rights and International Justice at Stanford.  

Cohen’s involvement in war crimes tribunals began in the mid 1990’s with a project to collect the records of the national war crimes programs conducted in approximately 20 countries in Europe and Asia after WWII. It was his work with transitional justice initiatives and tribunal monitoring programs that resulted in preserving the entire SPSC-East Timor collection.  

“Despite the investments made in the contemporary tribunals, resources devoted to making the totality of these massive collections readily available are lacking or in many cases the IT infrastructure nonexistent,” said Cohen, who experienced the challenge of accessing materials conducting his own research.  

In partnership with Stanford Libraries, which has developed an integrated digital discovery environment for the project and manages the trial records in the Stanford Digital Repository, Cohen works closely with global entities and public policy organizations to serve as a support in making their documents more easily accessible, turning the documents into educational and research tools for both domestic and international audiences.  

University Librarian Michael Keller

“In serving as a digital resource for stewards of these historically valuable legal records in the countries of origin, we also make accessible worldwide these collections for study and reflection by future generations and for those seeking accountability for past injustices,” said Michael Keller, university librarian at Stanford and collaborator with Cohen on the Virtual Tribunal Initiative.

The Virtual Tribunals digital library received startup funding from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in order to enhance the technology platform by implementing multilingual full text searching using the East Timor collection as a pilot. In addition to the ability to search across the collection and within each document, tools to support the translation of interpretive content also has been developed and deployed.  

While the Virtual Tribunals Initiative was the initial beneficiary of the technical upgrades, other collections at Stanford, like Mario Paci: An Italian Maestro in China, has benefited already from the new enhancements. Although Stanford developed Spotlight to showcase digital collections, it is an open source application and has been adopted by other institutions including Harvard University, University of California-Berkeley, and University of Victoria. The upgrades made to the code using the Hewlett Foundation grant will also benefit these institutions and others who adopt Spotlight. 

According to Keller, this first iteration of the Virtual Tribunal digital library is serving as a prototype demonstrating how people will use the material and leverage its content for research and teaching. “We will continue to enhance the Virtual Tribunals’ functionality and broad reach to keep it a constantly relevant and useful tool for scholarship in human rights and international justice,” noted Keller. 

While the Virtual Tribunal Initiative aims to improve the accessibility of these documents, both Cohen and Keller agree that the project also addresses the question of how temporary justice institutions might leave behind a legacy that will be of lasting value for governments, scholars, experts, and students, as well as for the people of the post-conflict societies in whose name investigations and accountability have been pursued.

The new digital library is a significant milestone for the overall Virtual Tribunals Initiative. The productive partnerships the initiative is building with tribunals in The Hague, Cambodia and elsewhere are indispensible to the success of the project.

“As these temporary criminal justice institutions  conclude their trials, there is a sense of urgency to undertake this important contribution to their legacy work in earnest,” said Cohen.