Alain Werner recognised for his fight in protecting victims of war crimes

Alain Werner is nominated "Fellow" by Ashoka for his fight with Civitas Maxima "to create a more just and resilient world". (Credit: Eddy Mottaz)

The world's largest network of social entrepreneurs Ashoka has just welcomed into its ranks Alain Werner, the rising star of international justice and founder of Civitas Maxima.

The organisation said the creativity and ingenuity with which the Geneva-based lawyer fights to address the shortcomings of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and empower victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity impressed the evaluators, who applauded his “disruptive” methods. Emilie Romon, co-director of Ashoka Switzerland:

“We selected Alain Werner as a fellow because of his vision, creative solutions, impressive impact and strong ethical fiber. He identifies flaws in the system and finds new entrepreneurial ways to achieve his goals. He has the potential to transform the judiciary system and increase the efficiency of international justice.”

Why are we talking about it? Werner’s induction as a so-called “fellow” was announced this week on the sidelines of Ashoka Changemaker Summit, the organisation’s annual global gathering of social innovators and leaders taking place until 19 November.

Since its creation 40 years ago by Bill Drayton, inventor of the term “social entrepreneur”, Ashoka has designated 3,800 “fellows", social entrepreneurs who are recognised for their work in championing new ideas for social good. Other well-known fellows include Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, and Kailash Satyarthi, Nobel laureate and children's rights activist.

Switzerland counts 15 of them, half of whom represent the values of International Geneva. In the field of human rights, Alain Werner joins Andras Vamos-Goldman, founder of Justice Rapid Response, another initiative ensuring that crimes against humanity are investigated promptly, and Karen Tse, founder of International Bridges to Justice.

Werner’s fellowship. In eight years, with his Geneva-based independent legal representation of victims, Werner’s work contributed to the arrest and/or convictions of eight alleged perpetrators of international crimes in six different countries. The ICC only convicted four for international crimes over the course of 18 years.

Local civil society actors are hardly involved in international prosecution procedures despite being in a unique position to carry out the crucial task of collecting and securing evidence. Romon said:

"It is very complicated for local and national judges to file an appeal to the ICC because of lack of expertise or information. Alain Werner has reversed this mentality and instead of waiting for the ICC to launch an investigation or a request, he takes the case upstream and strengthens the skills of local actors, turning victims into agents of change. In doing so, he paves the way for more systemic changes in the domestic judicial systems laying healthy foundations for conflict-torn nations to rebuild themselves."

We asked the freshly nominated Fellow about the award and his work:

Geneva Solutions: You already have many accolades and acclaim for your work. What does this nomination mean to you, to Civitas Maxima, and your fight?

Alain Werner: I always had tremendous admiration for the Ashoka network, and to be part of this movement through a fellowship is a great honour for me. I feel that empowering people who have ideas and want to change things for the common good, and then connecting them together through a global network, is more important than ever before. To be an Ashoka Fellow will nurture me and Civitas Maxima considerably, allowing us to exchange with, and be enriched by, thousands of fellows around the world in many different sectors who have created and operate structures with a view to improving the lives of many, and who learnt many things along the way that they can share.

No one believed in your daring enterprise back in 2012 but today its precisely the innovative and disruptive aspect of your fight that seem to bear fruit?

One has to be very humble in our field, and understand that setbacks are part of the way, as our work involves collaborating with partners in countries where the circumstances are much more difficult, and we are trying together to contribute to complex extraterritorial legal proceedings which are not yet mainstream in many countries. Bringing evidence in Court for crimes committed many years ago during wartime is very complicated in itself. So the way is paved with complexities, and to get carried away by achievements in some cases would seem to me very foolish. But that does not mean we cannot be ambitious, quite the contrary. And it is true that today, even more than when we started in 2012, we have the indestructible conviction that what we do is vital for the future of humanity.

Why do we need creative lawyers to achieve justice?

What is needed in my view is to have lawyers with resilience and the unshakable belief that justice can be achieved for victims of mass crimes, even if political factors seem adverse. I am not the first lawyer to dedicate my life to finding justice for victims of mass crimes, and on the contrary, I strive to live up to the lineage of impressive lawyers who have this resilience and this belief: from Juan Garcès in Spain who documented for so many years the crimes in Chili and initiated and led the Pinochet case on behalf of the victims, to Reed Brody and Jacqueline Moudeina who as lawyers never gave up for over 15 years and made the Habré case possible in Senegal, to Philip Grant who set up Trial International in Geneva well over 15 years ago and is still building it up so well, to Wolfgang Kaleck who did the same well over 10 years ago in Germany with the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights and is also contributing so much to this field. There is a common and fundamental belief shared by actors in our field: that achieving justice for victims of international crimes is important.

Is it still necessary to move the lines to see international justice applied?

Yes, the way the international community has built the system of international justice – with international tribunals, the permanent ICC, and then hoping that states will try war criminals on their soil – has proved problematic. The prosecutors of the ICC have managed to obtain only 4 convictions since 2002, and as we know many states simply do nothing to prevent and/or punish war crimes on their soil, or to try people who are suspected of mass crimes that live in their country. This is the reality of the world we live in today. Therefore, indeed we need other independent actors, networks of lawyers, working on behalf of victims to ensure that national prosecutors and judges increasingly try war crimes cases, and create jurisprudence, with the idea that this builds momentum and a virtuous circle across the world.

What weaknesses of this international justice system Civitas Maxima responds to?

For me, corruption and the commission of war crimes is linked, in the sense that in both scenarios people believe they can get away with it. In Geneva, most people will not try to corrupt a police officer who is giving them a speeding ticket, or murder their noisy neighbour, and part of the reason for that is the understanding that they are likely to be caught and face serious consequences if they do it. So any endeavour to fight corruption or impunity for war crimes is linked in my mind, as it is an attempt to strengthen the rule of law.

What are the most moving moments of your career?

To see ordinary, and sometimes uneducated, people standing up in courts, in front of those who used to be so powerful and incredibly frightening for them as they were committing crimes in total impunity, and seeing these people telling their stories in such a decent way, without fear and with confidence in the notion of a fair trial, has moved me beyond words. I saw that in court in the Charles Taylor trial in The Hague in 2008, in the Duch trial in Phnom Penh in 2009, and again in the Hissène Habré trial in Dakar in 2016, and this has left within me a profound sense of optimism.

The first war crime trial in Switzerland against Liberian leader Alieu Kosiah, accused of war crimes ranging from slavery to murder, sexual violence and pillage, will open at the Swiss Federal Tribunal in Bellinzona in two weeks, what do you expect?

This trial is a very big deal for the victims we represent, and also for Liberia, as it will be the first-ever war crimes trial of a Liberian citizen for acts committed during the civil war. At the beginning of the proceedings in 2014-2015 there was Ebola in Liberia, and in 2020 a historic pandemic across the world. So for the victims to stand up in court it will be something very special – with a sense that very many obstacles were overcome. Our hope is that testifying in court will help the victims we represent to move forward with their lives, and that it will also continue to empower people in Liberia who want to see some kind of concrete accountability taking place in Liberia, where the crimes were committed.