In December 2018, the Clooney Foundation for Justice, founded by George and Amal Clooney, announced a new project called TrialWatch, a global effort to monitor court trials and which aims to create a global justice index, rating countries on the fairness of their trial systems.
Working with the Columbia University Law School and the American Bar Association, the TrialWatch initiative will be formally launched on 25 April at Columbia Law School and train an international network of court monitors, including non-lawyers, whose reports will be used by legal experts to grade trials according to international standards. It has also joined forces with Microsoft to develop technology to document trends in judicial abuses and fund a fellowship.
Trial monitoring is an expensive proposition. A single court case, including pre-trial hearings, might drag on for months or years. Proceedings can be convoluted and secretive, and understanding them can require legal and local expertise. Meanwhile, there is a growing consensus that unfair trials demand a more pronounced global response. The U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals include ensuring “equal access to justice for all”—something that was left out of the SDG’s precursor, the Millennium Development Goals.
“TrialWatch intends to shine a light on injustice wherever it occurs, so that we can start to fight it. One case at a time,” co-founder Amal Clooney told IOHR.
As the foundation’s website states, TrialWatch is “an initiative focused on monitoring, reporting on, and responding to trials around the world which pose a high risk of human rights violations.” It will focus on trials that target journalists, human rights defenders, members of the LGBTQ community, women and girls, and religious minorities.
Sarah Cleveland, faculty director of Columbia University Law School’s Human Rights Institute, said that while many organisations monitor high-profile trials, TrialWatch also will scrutinise lesser-known cases.
The aim is “to expand global capacity so that we can reach trials that don’t involve the deposed head of state,” Cleveland told Reuters.
So far, eleven trials are being, or have been, monitored through the initiative. One was a trial of a blogger charged with defamation after he spoke out against alleged police misconduct Another, in Western Africa, concerned the trial of a journalist prosecuted for theft-related offenses in connection with political reporting. In Eastern Africa, the trial of several individuals charged under anti-LGBTQ laws have been monitored.
In Southern Africa, three trials so far are monitored: the trial of an activist charged with subverting government in connection with a call for protests, the trial of an activist charged with disobeying lawful orders in connection with protest activity and the trial of a political figure on election-law-related charges.
In South Asia, the initiative has monitored the trial of a journalist for sedition and defamation in connection with Facebook posts and, in South East Asia, the trial of a journalist critical of the government for administrative and cyber-law offenses.
The initiative has also looked at three trials in Europe: the trial of a journalist whose media outlet is one of the few independent of the government, another of a journalist on misuse of information charges in connection with political reporting, and lastly, the trial of a journalist on terrorism-related grounds.
“We are honored to partner with the Clooney Foundation on a bold initiative designed to foster fairness and transparency around the world—and ultimately to reform the administration of justice,” said Gillian Lester, dean of Columbia Law School, in a press release.
So-called TrialAlerts can be submitted by people who are aware of trials or judicial proceedings that present a significant risk of human rights violations, including trials in which the law may be used to oppress vulnerable groups, silence speech, or target political opponents.
The Clooney Foundation for Justice
Amal Clooney, who received the UN Global Citizen of the Year Award in 2018, is an international law and human rights lawyer who has been a visiting professor at Columbia University Law School since 2015. She married the Oscar-winning actor George Clooney in 2014 and together they launched the Clooney Foundation for Justice, which focuses on promoting justice in courtrooms and elsewhere, in 2016. Amal was also recently appointed the British Foreign and Commonwealth’s Office Special Envoy on Media Freedom.
She had previously defended Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and award-winning journalist Mohamed Fahmy who was the bureau chief of Al Jazeera English in Cairo before he was charged with fabricated terrorism offenses in 2014. He was pardoned by the Egyptian president in 2015 largely due to her efforts.
Apart from TrialWatch, the foundation’s other projects include “Empowering a Generation”, “Refugee Resettlement” and “Fighting for the Marginalised”.
As part of “Empowering a Generation”, the foundation has made efforts to help integrate Syrian refugees into Lebanon’s schools. Partnering with UNICEF, they helped enable eight existing public schools in Lebanon to open their doors for after-hours “second shifts” to educate Syrian refugee children during the 2017-2018 school year. This permitted approximately 3,000 Syrian refugee children to get access to formal education during that school year.
The Clooney Foundation for Justice’s Refugee Resettlement programme provides financial and other support for refugees who have been approved for entry into the US following the government’s security vetting, and to other victims displaced by war, to help them rebuild their lives.
The Clooneys themselves sponsored an Iraqi refugee who escaped genocide by the Islamic State. In 2014, Hazim Avdal and his family were forced to flee their village in Iraq, where they were part of the Yazidi religious minority, when Islamic militants attacked. The 24-year-old is now a student at the University of Chicago.
As part of “Fighting for the Marginalised”, the foundation is a partner of and provides significant financial support to The Sentry in order to enhance its capacity to combat human rights abuses by following the money that enriches human rights abusers in conflict-affected areas from northeast to central Africa.
It was also recently released that the Clooney Foundation has partnered with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) to use litigation to combat hate groups and violent extremists. Through a $1 million grant, CFJ has endowed a standing legal fellowship at the SPLC to allow young lawyers to contribute to the Center’s efforts to combat hate in the United States.