A Bold Idea for Justice

Twenty years ago, the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) launched with a bold idea — could we hold those responsible for torture, war crimes, and genocide accountable in a court of law?

We started by bringing civil cases in U.S. courts under the Alien Tort Statute and Torture Victim Protection Act. In our first case in 1998, CJA represented four Bosnian refugees against Nicola Vukovic, the man who had tortured them and was now living in Atlanta, Georgia. Our four clients had faced sheer terror at the hands of Vukovic, a Bosnian Serb soldier in charge of a detention center during the Bosnian War. He beat our clients with bare fists and metal pipes, and used a knife to carve symbols into one man’s forehead. CJA won that case.

CJA also worked with U.S. government lawyers who filed criminal immigration cases against our defendants, including former Ministers of Defense from El Salvador. These men were responsible for some of the most emblematic murders during El Salvador’s civil war, which had claimed the lives of more than 75,000 men, women and children – and now they were seeking safe haven in the United States. Thanks to our brave clients, CJA won our civil cases against them as well.

Since then, CJA has filed lawsuits in Spain for the Jesuits Massacre and Guatemala Genocide cases; assisted prosecutors in Guatemala for the Mayan Ixil genocide, and in Peru for the Fujimori prosecution; and represented 145 Cambodian American civil parties in the Khmer Rouge Trials in Cambodia.

Today, CJA is pursuing the first Syrian war crimes case against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Working on behalf of the family of American journalist Marie Colvin, one of the top war correspondents of her generation, we will show that Syrian military and intelligence forces are responsible for her assassination when she was reporting from Homs, Syria. CJA is also part of a legal team in a parallel case in France, on behalf of the family of slain photographer Remi Ochlik and injured journalist Edith Bouvier who were targeted in the same missile attacks that killed Colvin.

CJA’s vision is a world in which justice thrives — where those who have suffered unimaginable horror and pain are able to chart a course for truth and justice; where courts hold accountable those who commit atrocities; where there are no safe havens anywhere for perpetrators to escape justice; and where survivors gain confidence in the democratic institutions necessary for Never Again to mean Never Again.

We are proud that at CJA we have won all of our cases that have come to trial. Yet despite our successes, we know the world can feel bleak with Syria attacking its children with sarin gas, Turkey arresting 40,000 citizens after a failed coup, Chechnya sending gay men to concentration camps, Rohingya women facing systematic rape in Burma, and the rise of neo-fascism around the globe. Truth is under assault like never before, as autocrats use the “fake media” playbook to deny atrocities, calling the press “the enemy of the people,” and judges “so-called” judges. How can we have faith in elected leaders, and the democratic institutions they lead, when they would thwart the Geneva Conventions’ prohibition against torture?

Rights are fragile things and we must defend them with all of our might.

There is reason for optimism. From World War II to the present, human rights have blossomed, including the establishment of the United Nations; the adoption 70 years ago of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the ratification of human rights treaties to prevent, mitigate and redress future crimes against humanity; domestication of those treaties into state law; and establishment of international tribunals and special courts to address the atrocities committed in Rwanda, Bosnia and elsewhere.

Not every effort to protect human rights has been a resounding success, but each has been a step forward and together we continue to advance. The international legal framework that has evolved since Nuremberg, has led to more peace, not less; more democracy, not less; greater rule of law, not less. We are on the right path.

CJA’s success, and that of the international community, is a remarkable two-decade testament to the unyielding, undaunted, savvy, compassionate strength of those on the front lines, seeking truth and justice and accountability. Truth is at the heart of the work of the Center for Justice and Accountability, and it as at the core of our soul as human beings.

Sometimes there are ruptures in our social fabric, but this only means that we must redouble our efforts to weave our global net of accountability with even stronger threads of love and respect, and law. Twenty years ago we asked the question: can we bring perpetrators of crimes against humanity accountable in a court of law? Today we have our answer. Working together with the brave survivors of these crimes, their families and communities – and with support from an international network of experts and allies – we are building a global net of accountability for atrocity crimes, and creating a world where justice thrives.