Courts are supposed to rectify a society’s imbalances: when power is corrupted, abused, or misused, a fair trial should offer redress. Yet, many governments use the judiciary as a tool to silence their critics and persecute minorities.
“Illegitimate judicial proceedings are increasingly being used as a ‘rule-of-law-shield’ to fend off legitimate criticism,” says David Pressman, the Executive Director of the Clooney Foundation for Justice (CFJ) and US Special Ambassador to the United Nations. Rogue governments are using courts to have their rivals prosecuted on spurious grounds, imprison them arbitrarily, and deny their procedural rights in the courtroom.
No system exists to monitor the fairness of trials around the world: some cases receive media attention and are well documented, whereas others are only followed by local activists. To bridge this gap, the CFJ, founded by George and Amal Clooney in June 2016, set up TrialWatch, an international monitoring program. Launched in April 2019, TrialWatch trains individuals in the basics of trial-monitoring, and equips them with the TrialWatch app, developed with Microsoft, to help them collect information about trials of interest in their areas. That information is then passed on to legal experts, such as international human rights lawyers, who assess it and write fairness reports. In time, this will contribute to a global justice index, ranking countries by the fairness of their legal system.
By early May 2019, TrialWatch was already monitoring 18 trials around the world, from Nigeria to Belarus, a number which the organisation wants to increase. “TrialWatch aims to solve the challenge of scaling trial-monitoring,” says Pressman. Trial-monitoring has been used by legal experts and lawyers for many years, because it increases transparency, creates a simplified record of the trial, and can facilitate reform. To make it easier to become a monitor, the CFJ developed a new set of guidelines accessible to non-experts, which were approved by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the American Bar Association and Columbia Law School.
The TrialWatch smartphone app gives trial-monitors the tools to collect essential information, and store it securely in one place. The training that trial-monitors receive helps ensure that they record the right information, and straightforward yes/no questionnaires help them speed up collection. Within the app, trial-monitors can also take photos, shoot videos, and record audio – which is useful, given that many of the monitored trials happen in languages which aren’t widely spoken. Audio files are transcribed in the original language and then translated into English by Microsoft’s Azure Cognitive Services. All that is securely uploaded to the cloud, to be pored over by the CFJ’s legal experts.
“Our hope is that TrialWatch can help expose states when they fall short,” Pressman says . “It can demonstrate the ways that states are instrumentalising the courts in an effort to legitimise human rights abuses.”
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