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Justice Through Information: In Conversation with Francisco B González Centeno

Francisco B González Centeno is an officer for the International Criminal Court (ICC) from Buenos Aries, Argentina. He holds an MSc in Sociology from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Francisco has been a central pillar in protecting the human right of access to information by expanding access to justice in the Central African Republic. He has been involved with projects with UNECSO to protect cultural heritage sites from collateral damage in areas of conflict.

 

CJLPA: Welcome Francisco, and many thanks for interviewing with The Cambridge Journal of Law, Politics, and Art. We wanted to begin by asking you what prompted you to delve into a career in international justice?

 

Francisco B González Centeno: My career in international justice did not start as a lawyer, as most people might assume, but as a political scientist and sociologist. In fact, law was not my favourite subject during my political science and international relations studies. However, I got interested in law as a social and political construct. I was eager to study the mechanisms on how the law shapes and impacts societies, and how it also reflects the agency of humans in terms of social and power relations. Law is the crystallisation of human relations and therefore has an impact in our daily interactions, which are regulated by it. During my sociology research at The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), I was particularly interested in how international criminal justice and transitional justice procedures impact reconciliation and how they address collective memory as a story-telling mechanism that could help build more peaceful contexts.

 

CJLPA: After completing your university degree in Argentina, you went on to do your masters in LSE. How did your time in LSE shape your career trajectory?

 

FGC: LSE offered me a unique and, most importantly, critical approach to the study of the social sciences. The LSE Department of Sociology has played a key role in establishing and developing the discipline and debate around global policies since 1904. I am proud and honoured to have been part of the Department and to have had the opportunity to receive the academic advice and guidance of top-quality thinkers, many of them leaders in the evolution of the social sciences in new intellectual areas and the study of the social problems and ethical dilemmas facing cosmopolitan but also fractured and complex societies.

 

LSE marked my career path because of the emphasis the university had on connecting academia and the sciences to the real world and adapting disciplines to different and diverse realms and global challenges. I have applied my Sociology expertise, honed at LSE, to the areas of justice, the rule of law and law enforcement in the United Nations (UN) system.

 

At the LSE, there is this triangle about changing the world, shaping the world, and academia. The School’s current campaign ‘#CuriousMindsAreShapingTheWorld’ reflects this spirit. I am very proud to be an active member of the LSE Alumni community and to keep contributing to the School from any front.


CJLPA: In your early career, you worked as an Under-Secretary at the Chambers of the Chief Justice of Argentina, and as an external relations specialist for UNESCO in the fight against illicit trafficking in cultural goods, at the Culture Sector of the Organisation. Having worked closely with the Chief Justice of Argentina since 2008, could you please give us any insight into cases when the Supreme Court of Argentina had defended or protected the human rights of victims?

 

FGC: In 2005, the Supreme Court of Argentina declared the ‘Full Stop’ and ‘Due Obedience’ laws unconstitutional. These laws had previously halted the prosecution of military and police personnel for human rights violations during the last dictatorship (1976-1983). This was a crucial moment that paved the way for renewed prosecutions of those allegedly involved in human rights abuses. The decisions were emblematic of a larger shift in Argentine society towards prioritising accountability and justice. The 2005 nullification of the amnesty laws by the Supreme Court of Argentina was a turning point in the country’s transitional justice process. This decision played a fundamental role in addressing impunity for the grave human rights abuses committed during the last military dictatorship.

 

The primary grounds on which the amnesty laws were declared unconstitutional were as follows:

 

  • Incompatibility with International Treaties: Argentina is a signatory to various international human rights treaties, such as the American Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The amnesty laws were seen as incompatible with Argentina’s obligations under these treaties to investigate and punish gross human rights violations.

  • Crimes Against Humanity: The Supreme Court recognised the acts committed during the dictatorship as crimes against humanity. Such crimes, due to their severity and impact on the international community, are not subject to amnesties, pardons, or statutes of limitations.

  • Right to Justice: The Court argued that the amnesty laws denied victims their right to justice and truth. Every victim has the right to know the truth about violations and to an effective remedy, which the amnesty laws hindered.

  • Judicial Independence: The laws were also criticised for infringing upon the principle of the independence of the judiciary. By preventing the judiciary from investigating and punishing certain crimes, the laws were essentially intervening in the natural functioning of the justice system.


Each of the Supreme Court Justices back then brought their perspectives and interpretations to the bench. Their collective decision to overturn the amnesty laws reflected both a domestic shift in public sentiment and Argentina’s broader obligations under international law.

 

This Supreme Court decision was important in terms of the recognition of victims and Human Rights. Many families of the disappeared and other victims had been waiting for decades for justice. The nullification meant that their pain and suffering were acknowledged and that those responsible could be held accountable. By overturning the amnesty laws, Argentina officially recognised the magnitude and severity of the crimes committed during the dictatorship. This helped ensure that these atrocities were not forgotten or minimised in historical memory. The decision underscored the state’s obligation to prosecute and punish gross human rights violations, signifying a commitment to the rule of law and to human rights principles.

 

The decision was exemplary for the international community in terms of transitional justice. Argentina’s decision inspired and provided a legal precedent for other countries grappling with similar challenges. Countries facing transitional justice questions often look to examples from other nations, and Argentina’s nullification was seen as a bold move against impunity. The decision reignited the debate on the legitimacy and morality of amnesty laws, particularly when it concerns crimes against humanity. The nullification showed that, in some cases, the quest for national reconciliation should not come at the cost of justice. The nullification aligned Argentina with international human rights standards, particularly the notion that grave human rights abuses should not be subject to statutes of limitations or amnesties. This bolstered international human rights norms and conventions.

 

After the 2005 nullification,


  • hundreds of cases were reopened or initiated after the nullification;

  • by the late 2010s, over 800 individuals had been convicted of crimes related to the dictatorship, and approximately 1,000 more were facing charges, which marked a significant acceleration in the prosecution of dictatorship-era crimes.

 

In summary, the 2005 nullification of the amnesty laws by the Supreme Court of Argentina was not just a domestic triumph for justice and human rights but also had broader implications for the international community’s ongoing struggle against impunity and the quest for transitional justice. The decision served as a powerful testament to the resilience of victims’ families and human rights advocates in Argentina and worldwide.


CJLPA: What are the biggest challenges you have faced when interacting with governing bodies in foreign jurisdictions in your early career? Working in such close proximity to the Chief Justice of Argentina, what skills did you develop that have benefited you in your current work with the ICC?

 

FGC: There were challenges but most importantly career opportunities. At the Chambers of the Chief Justice of Argentina, I was special assistant to The Honourable Chief Justice Ricardo Lorenzetti, from whom I acquired a wealth of experience and to whom I am extremely thankful for his mentoring as an excellent manager and supervisor. I worked especially on the institutional agenda of the Presidency of the Court, including and especially with external actors, such as different Judiciaries of the world (Supreme Courts and Constitutional Courts) and other key stakeholders, International Tribunals and UN Agencies and Entities. I helped organise and coordinated with different sections of the Court; several international summits; conferences and meetings; State and Official Visits of high level senior officials (including Heads of States and International Organisations) to the seat of the Court; official trips of the Chief Justice and the Justices to different countries; and provided assistance and coordination for the signing and the execution of numerous international partnership agreements between the Supreme Court of Argentina and leading partners.

 

This experience has been capital for me in terms of the external relations of justice, with functions that underlined the independence of the judiciary and the division of powers in a republic like Argentina. I believe it gave me the right tools to see and to show stakeholders the importance of justice and how justice can make a change and impact on people’s lives, everywhere.

 

CJLPA: In regard to your work with UNESCO, could you provide us with some insight on the importance of the legal protection of heritage and culture for the promotion of peace and security?

 

FGC: The legal protection of heritage and culture is not just a matter of preservation; it is deeply intertwined with promoting peace and security, both within nations and internationally. UNESCO, with its mandate to foster global collaboration in the fields of education, science, and culture, underscores the crucial role of legally protecting heritage in peacebuilding efforts. Here’s how these are connected:

 

1. Protecting cultural identity:

Cultural heritage represents the shared histories, traditions, and values of communities. Protecting it legally ensures that these identities are respected, reducing potential sources of conflict. Recognising and protecting diverse cultural heritages can stimulate intercultural dialogue, fostering understanding and mutual respect among different communities.

 

2. Preventing illicit trafficking:

Illicit trafficking of cultural property can be a significant source of revenue for criminal and terrorist organisations. Legal protection mechanisms, like those in the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, help stem this flow. Preventing illicit trade reduces the incentive for illegal excavations and theft, indirectly safeguarding cultural heritage.

 

3. Protection in times of conflict:

The 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its protocols highlight the importance of preserving cultural heritage during wars and armed conflicts. Such protection ensures that the cultural and historical foundations of societies are not lost amidst conflict. After conflicts, the restoration and repatriation of cultural property, made possible through legal frameworks, can be a significant step in healing and rebuilding societal bonds.

 

4. Fostering resilience and recovery:

Culturally significant sites or practices often play central roles in community life. Their legal protection ensures that communities maintain these pillars of resilience during times of change or strife. In the aftermath of conflicts or disasters, cultural heritage can serve as a focal point for community rebuilding and recovery, both materially and psychologically.

 

5. Strengthening international cooperation:

International legal instruments, like those crafted by UNESCO, create a framework for nations to cooperate in protecting global cultural heritage, fostering diplomatic ties, and mutual understanding. Legal frameworks facilitate the return of cultural property to its country or community of origin, mending international relations that might have been strained due to disputes over cultural heritage.

 

6. Preserving memory for conflict prevention:

Some cultural heritage sites serve as reminders of past conflicts, atrocities, or injustices. Their protection ensures that future generations learn from history, reducing the risk of repeating past mistakes. Protected heritage sites and practices can be focal points for educating the public about the consequences of conflict, promoting a culture of peace.

 

In essence, the legal protection of heritage and culture, as advocated and facilitated by UNESCO, serves as both a shield against potential sources of conflict and a tool for healing, understanding, and cooperation. By legally safeguarding the diverse tapestry of global cultures, nations build bridges of dialogue and understanding that are foundational for lasting peace and security.

 

CJLPA: Could you tell us about a project that you consulted on which is particularly meaningful or interesting to you?

 

FGC: My favourite project whilst working in UNESCO was the launch of the #Unite4Heritage campaign in South America.

 

The #Unite4Heritage campaign was launched by UNESCO in 2015 as a response to the unprecedented attacks on cultural heritage, particularly in the Middle East. Extremist groups were deliberately targeting cultural landmarks, artefacts, and monuments, either for ideological reasons or to fund their activities through the illicit trade of looted items. The campaign was certainly very relevant in terms of law enforcement for many reasons.

 

Regarding illicit trafficking of cultural property, cultural artefacts often end up in the black market and are sold to finance terrorist activities. Tackling this requires international law enforcement cooperation. Many cultural heritage sites are in conflict zones, making them vulnerable. Law enforcement and peacekeeping forces play an essential role in physically protecting these sites from deliberate destruction or collateral damage. The campaign underscored the need for strong legal frameworks at both the national and international levels to protect cultural heritage. Such frameworks guide law enforcement agencies in their efforts to prevent illicit activities related to cultural properties.

 

While the impetus for the campaign emerged primarily from events in the Middle East, its principles are globally relevant, including in South America, and this is what we focused on for its launch in the subregion.

 

South America is home to a diverse and rich cultural heritage, from ancient Incan and Mayan cities to colonial architecture and indigenous traditions. These are not just important for South Americans as they also hold value for all of humanity. The region has seen its share of threats to cultural heritage, including illegal excavations, looting of archaeological sites, environmental threats, and urbanisation pressures. The campaign #Unite4Heritage helped in raising awareness about these threats and mobilising action to counter them. South America, like other regions, is not immune to the illicit trafficking of cultural property. Strengthening legal and enforcement measures to combat this can benefit from the momentum and resources provided by global campaigns like #Unite4Heritage. South America is marked by its cultural diversity, with indigenous communities holding rich traditions and knowledge systems. Protecting and celebrating this diversity aligned with the principles of the #Unite4Heritage campaign. Engaging local communities in the protection of their cultural heritage was also crucial. The campaign’s principles helped in fostering a sense of ownership and pride among South American communities, ensuring that heritage protection became a grassroots effort.

 

The launch of the #Unite4Heritage campaign in South America was took place during the opening of the art intervention #PalmyraAtVillaOcampo, at the only UNESCO owned property in the world, Villa Ocampo, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Like the Bamiyan Buddhas before, the city of Palmyra in Syria had become a symbol for the vulnerability of cultural heritage, a memorial for cultural loss and a warning for us and future generations that cultural heritage should not be taken for granted and could be lost at any time. This led to Syria and especially Palmyra being chosen as representative examples to illustrate the campaign. The whole property in Buenos Aires was artistically explored by music and plastic artists who brought Palmyra into the property. The objective was to raise awareness, amongst government authorities, civil society, and especially young people, of the importance of heritage protection and cultural diversity and to stop extremist attacks on the cultural heritage of humanity. These concrete actions for Latin America aimed to promote the role of culture as a factor of tolerance and dialogue between peoples and to counter violent extremism in all its manifestations.

 

In essence, whilst the immediate concerns that led to the creation of the #Unite4Heritage campaign were centred in the Middle East, its objectives and principles had a universal relevance. South America, with its intricate tapestry of cultural histories and present-day challenges, stood to benefit immensely from the awareness, resources, and collaborations fostered by such a campaign, and it was an honour for me to work on the design of local initiatives framed into that campaign.

 

CJLPA: Your work in the Central African Republic is directed at providing access to justice through access to information. Could you please highlight, through your observations, the challenges that are faced by affected communities in accessing necessary means of justice and why it is important to provide information to the general public of the works of the Court?

 

(Figures 1-4 show a pop-up installation in Bangui, CAR, displaying images from the ICC’s courtroom in The Hague, more information at https://www.icc-cpi.int/about/outreach/activities/activity/pop-installation-bangui-attracts-passers. Figures 5-8 show billboards announcing the trial opening in the Mahamat Said Abdel Kani case visible in Bossangoa, Berbérati, Mbaïki and Bria, more information at https://www.icc-cpi.int/about/outreach/activities/activity/billboards-way-announce-start-trial.)


FGC: The Central African Republic (CAR) has faced complex political, social, and humanitarian challenges for many years, including military coups, political instability, and prolonged armed conflicts. These complexities have unfortunately had a significant impact on access to justice for its population, making it a major challenge.

 

Many citizens, due to the lack of means to access information, might be unaware of their legal rights or the processes involved in seeking justice. This is why I regard my work at the International Criminal Court (ICC) as relevant. There is a need for greater public information and outreach tools which can help justice, especially international criminal justice, be more accessible. Access to information is a human right and a tool to access justice.

 

When we speak about affected communities in the ICC Cases in CAR, we include both victims’ communities and the suspects’ communities. Both have the right to have access to information and therefore justice; bearing in mind the important concepts and principles of a fair trial and the presumption of innocence, but never forgetting the relevance of the victims’ voices during the proceedings.

 

CJLPA: In what ways does the ICC work towards making justice more accessible and easier to understand in the affected communities in CAR?

 

FGC: In the Central African Republic, public information and outreach focuses on access to justice through access to information, on meeting affected communities, on peace and reconciliation. The work of the Court is made public especially through screenings, urban intervention campaigns, and pop-up installations.

 

A number of outreach activities were conducted since 2019, when I joined the Court, including ones in relation to the arrest and first appearance of Mr Maxime Jeoffroy Eli Mokom Gawaka; the confirmation of charges against Mr Mahamat Saïd Abdel Kani; the issuance of the public redacted version of the warrant of arrest for Mr Mahamat Nouradine Adam; and progress in the trial of Alfred Yekatom and Patrice-Edouard Ngaïssona.

 

The Court’s country office featured a live broadcast of the hearings on the confirmation of charges against Mr Saïd on TV Centrafrique, a radio station providing national coverage, and a live streaming activity took place in the 4ème Arrondissement of Bangui, an area of interest in terms of victim communities. Something similar is being done for the hearings of the confirmation of charges of Mr Maxime Jeoffroy Eli Mokom Gawaka, in an area of Bangui, the capital city of CAR, where both parts of the affected communities (victims’ and suspect’s communities) will be present to follow the retransmission of this judicial instance. The country office continues with its urban intervention campaign (involving the use of roadside billboards to announce key judicial phases and reinforcing justice-related principles), the series of pop-up installations in key symbolic locations in Bangui showing proceedings-related videos followed by a Q&A session, and #LeGrandDébatSurLaJustice (a radio-based justice dialogue to address concerns and questions about the ICC).

 

Public information and outreach activities are conducted in the hinterland, in areas of interest in terms of affected communities in the ICC Cases, such as Bria, the birthplace and place of arrest of the one of the accused persons, Mr Saïd; Birao, the place of arrest of Mr Ali Muhammad Ali Abd-Al-Rahman (‘Ali Kushayb’), a suspect in the Sudan situation; Mbaïki, one of the accused persons’ area of influence (Mr Yekatom); Boda; Carnot; Bouar; Yaloké; Bossangoa, the birthplace of two suspects (Mr Yekatom and Mr Mokom); and Berbérati.

 

CJLPA: Can you highlight the importance of publicly broadcasted court proceedings and access to information on what happens at the ICC Courtroom in The Hague?

 

FGC: Access to information in CAR is also connected to other two key elements: reconciliation and deterrence.

 

For victims and affected communities, understanding how international criminal justice works and accessing its mechanisms, when possible, seeing perpetrators held accountable can be cathartic and can aid in healing and reconciliation. It is essential to note, however, that whilst the ICC can contribute to reconciliation, it cannot guarantee it. Reconciliation is a complex, long-term process that requires multifaceted approaches beyond just legal measures.

 

In terms of deterrence, public information about international criminal justice at work can deter individuals from committing international crimes. Knowledge on the ICC in general contributes to the establishment of a global norm against impunity. Over time, this normative shift can lead to systemic changes in attitudes towards grave crimes.

 

CJLPA: Could you please provide some insight on the ICC’s urban intervention campaign in the CAR?

 

FGC: This is a twofold access to information and justice campaign. It consists of the installation and display of informative billboards in Bangui and in locations of interest in terms of affected communities, and the spontaneous set-up of pop-up installations with a big screen in the streets of Bangui that invite all passersby to follow trial summaries and to participate in quizzes about the Court. The latter is an open justice and a democratic public information and outreach tool, which is different from traditional outreach activities where key personalities or influencers are invited.

 

Billboards are placed in Bangui and in different cities in the hinterland in the Central African Republic, announcing key judicial instances in the ICC Cases, and also concepts and principles about international criminal justice, amongst them, the presumption of innocence and the importance of a fair trial, the relevance of the voice of victims, etc. This way, information is clearly visible for affected communities throughout the Central African Republic.

 

During the pop-up installations in the streets of Bangui, a big screen is mounted in different key neighbourhoods, attracting more than 200 people, who stop by to watch animations and videos portraying the work of the Court. One after the other, videos in Sango and French point to the latest developments in the ICC Cases in CAR: Yekatom and Ngaïssona, Saïd and Mokom. After the screening, the ICC team invites the audience to participate in a quiz about the Court.


CJLPA: What advice would you like to give to anyone trying to get into a career in international justice?


FGC: One certainly does not need to be a lawyer, but rather to have a vocation to understand the causes of things, which is the motto of my alma mater, the LSE. To understand how and why justice and law are important as social constructions and how they affect and impact social relations, including peacebuilding and reconciliation. This is the passion I find in justice and all its implications and connections, including the rule of law and law enforcement. I would also suggest developing a specific profile and specialising in a concrete area, but most importantly in something that can make one be proud of shaping the world towards a better one.

 

This interview was conducted by Nour Kachi, Legal Researcher for 'CJLPA: The Human Agenda'. In addition to his role at CJLPA, Nour is currently working on qualifying as a lawyer in the US and UK.

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