This inteDavid Tolbertrview was conducted by Sarah Kerman, a Duke undergraduate working for DHRC@FHI.  David Tolbert will present a talk on March 25th entitled “Is the International Community Abandoning the Fight Against Impunity?” as part of the Commissioning Truths speaker series.  For more information about Tolbert’s talk, please click here.

How did you get interested in human rights?

I grew up in North Carolina and attended segregated schools until I was in the 4th grade and thus was exposed to racial injustice at an early age. I was deeply impacted by this experience and had a strong moral abhorrence to seeing people treated unfairly. (I much later discovered that my family on my father’s side opposed slavery and secession and that my grandfather was a lawyer in South Carolina who fought for civil rights, so perhaps that had an indirect impact on me as well).

Later when I was 18, I spent a year working (in hotels, etc.) and traveling around Europe, and I developed an interest in international matters. After practicing law for some years, I knew that I needed to reconnect with my interest in human rights and international matters. This led me to doing a graduate degree in Britain in international law and naturally ended up studying human rights.

So, I suppose that spending most of my career working on international human rights issues was shaped by these experiences and perceptions. In any event, this was the right path for me.


How is it different working at a non-profit that focuses on transitional justice versus advocacy through the UN, a multi-lateral organization?

There are many differences.

Of course, while I held senior positions in the UN, at ICTJ I am the head of the organization, so the level of responsibility is quite different. Thus, at ICTJ I am focused on trying to see the mission of the organization is on the right track and being carried out effectively, that we have sufficient funding, that our work is having impact and that we are adding value. The UN is, of course, a much larger organization that has considerable bureaucracy and thus many rules and regulations. On the other hand, it has a lot of resources and carries considerable weight in some circumstances. Thus, if you are able to be able to influence the process, the impact can be very high indeed. I felt that at times when I was in the UN, particularly at the ICTY and in the ECCC, that I was able to make an impact. However, those experiences are probably more the exception that the rule.

I have had great experience both working for the UN and for ICTJ, so I feel like I have had the best of both worlds.


What is your advice to students thinking of a career in Human Rights?

Obviously, getting a good grounding in human rights law and principles is important.  I would also strongly suggest that students get relevant experience. Thus, working with national or local civil society efforts, so that they have an understanding of who they are working for and understanding the challenges is essential. I would also say, for the lawyers who read this, that you should get some practice experience. When I was Deputy Chief Prosecutor at the ICTY, I was not very interested in lawyers who did not know their national system, as that is where the relevant experience is gained. So, I would advise that in addition to obtaining the education in the field of your choosing, students should look to work with those on the front line, e.g., victims, affected communities, activists.

What is the value in having an international court to try human rights violations?  What limitations do you see the ICC facing?  

An international court is clearly a court of last resort.  The first port of call is the national system, and it is generally only in extreme cases that we should be turning to international courts. I would note, of course, that regional human rights courts have played an important role in a number of places, particularly in Europe and Latin America.

In terms of international criminal courts, such as the ICC, they face enormous challenges.  At the ICTY where we created by the UN Security Council and had the support of many of the great powers as well as a narrow territorial jurisdiction (the territory of the former Yugoslavia), it was hard enough. The ICC has none of these advantages and a very broad number of situations to potentially monitor (123 countries plus Security Council referrals).

The importance of having the ICC is, however, immense. It is the high water mark of the international community’s fight against impunity.  However, in the wake of 9/11, the Iraq war catastrophe and a number of other developments, the world’s commitment to this fight has wavered. So, the ICC operates in a difficult political terrain and with many constraints in terms of its resources and powers. At the moment it is facing a concerted political attack on a number of fronts, and it needs a great deal more support.

I think we should, however, bear in mind Martin Luther King, Jr.’s observation that the “arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” We are in the early days of the life of the ICC, so we need to support the institution and give it some time to address the issues it is facing.

Do you think the US will be held accountable for torture and indefinite detention in Guantanamo?

I certainly hope so. It is a moral imperative for the United States government but also for the American people. Thus, active civil society engagement on this issue is critical to ensure that there is accountability and acknowledgement for these crimes and abuses. I do think we should bear in mind that often it takes a long to time to see abuses addresses. It took 40 years for the US to begin to address the internment of Japanese-American. So, we must be prepared for a long struggle, but there is some cause for hope that the battle will be yet won.