International Law Dialogs bring discussion, education, awareness to Chautauqua

Elora Tocci | Staff Writer

In 2002, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan asked David Crane to serve as the chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Crane served from April 2002 to July 2005 and indicted then-President of Liberia Charles Taylor for crimes against humanity, among others.

During his tenure, Crane said he developed close relationships with the chief prosecutors in countries like Rwanda and Cambodia and often engaged in dialogue about the issues they dealt with every day. After he left Sierra Leone, he wanted to set up a place where he and his colleagues could continue these discussions.

A natural place to turn for him was the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown, N.Y. Jackson, a Jamestown native, served as the chief prosecutor at the world’s first mass war crimes trial, of Nazi leaders at Nuremberg, Germany.

Crane established the International Law Dialogs, the first of which were held at the Jackson Center in 2007. The dialogues grew and moved to Chautauqua Institution, where the fifth annual talks will take place Aug. 28 to Aug. 30. The three days of education, discussion and outreach will run at Fletcher Music Hall and the Athenaeum Hotel and are free, with the exception of optional meals, and open to members of the public from all ages and backgrounds.

“It’s becoming the event of the year related to modern international criminal law; it’s a very historic event,” Crane said.

This year’s theme is “Widespread and Systematic! — Crimes Against Humanity in the Shadow of Modern International Law.”

Crane said discussions will explore the development of international crime as a systematic policy of nations destroying their own citizens and will consider where crime is today, where it’s been and what is in store for the future of prosecuting this crime.

“Modern international criminal court has evolved incredibly over the last 15 years,” Crane said. “We now have the ability to hold accountable those who bear the greatest responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

The itinerary for the dialogues includes breakfasts with prosecutors for tribunals across the globe, including, among others, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the United States Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. There will be keynote addresses from professors of law and legal professionals, an update on international criminal law, a screening of the film “The Response” about the tribunal at Guantanamo Bay, panel discussions and small break-out sessions with the prosecutors.

Megan Sorenson, director of development and communications for the Jackson Center, said that the talks are held in informal settings and offer a chance for the prosecutors, who are all friends with one another, to take a break from the daily horrors they contend with at work.

“Even though the topics are serious, it’s a lot of fun,” she said.

Sorenson said the attendees will consist of high school students and teachers to lawyers to interested members of the community. She said those attending don’t have to have any interest or background in the law to be engaged at the dialogues — the talks take the stories that fill the newspapers every day and bring them to life on the Institution grounds. The topics for discussion will range from child soldiers to the tribunal in Sierra Leone to how gender crimes perpetuated against women are used as a method of warfare. People can attend for just one day or even part of a day and tailor the talks to their interests.

“These are some of the most important issues going on in the world today, and we can have an impact on what’s happening,” she said. “These situations aren’t just headlines — they’re impacting the lives of people around the world, and we want to get people to be a part of the conversation and be aware of what’s happening and the resources available to help.”

Although the dialogues initially were held at the Jackson Center, they were moved to Chautauqua in part because of the captive audience here. The Q-and-A, discussion-based principles of the talks are familiar to Chautauquans, and the idyllic setting offers a perfect place to bring the community together.

Sorenson said diplomats and leaders often give speeches and do work in places as far away as India and Moscow but say to each other, “I’ll see you at Chautauqua.”

The drawing together of the community also is a tribute to Robert Jackson himself, who was greatly influenced by the lectures he heard at the Institution as he grew up and dedicated himself to a lifetime of learning.

Crane said the talks will give people who read horrifying headlines every day reassurance that “the rule of law is more powerful than the rule of the gun.”

He said the work done by speakers and prosecutors at the dialogues reminds individuals who destroy their own people that they can’t get away with that anymore, and that the world will hold them accountable. He said education is one of the most important components of the dialogues, as it’s necessary to teach the next generation about the history and importance of prosecuting war crimes so that they will be able to carry on that work.

“People should walk away from the dialogues with a renewed sense of hope,” Crane said.

For a complete itinerary of the dialogues, visit the Robert H. Jackson Center’s website at