“The Justice Laboratory” by Kerstin Bree Carlson

This short, elegant book analyzes the attempts over the last two decades to establish international criminal justice standards in Africa. Critics of the International Criminal Court contend that its attempts to prosecute African leaders such as Uhuru Kenyatta, the former president of Kenya, or Omar al-Bashir, the former president of Sudan, smacked of neocolonialism. Yet Carlson’s perceptive analysis provides a more subtle and positive assessment. Her book focuses not only on the ICC but also other legal institutions such as the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the Chambres Africaines Extraordinaires that tried former Chadian President Hissène Habré in Senegal between 2015 and 2016, the African Union–sponsored hybrid court for human rights abuses in South Sudan, and the East African Court of Justice in Tanzania. Through studies of each of these courts and tribunals, Carlson shows that international legal efforts to promote human rights are always vulnerable to attack by national governments, even when those governments initiate the legal proceedings. The courts cannot compete with motivated national governments and must carefully choose their cases and doctrinal focus in order to present themselves as objective and impartial. Without such a hard-won reputation, they will not be able to improve international legal standards in Africa.