International Courts as Places of Spectatorship and Dark Tourism?

Image: Hannah Graham

Friday 5th October, 2018

By Hannah Graham

International courts are attracting tourists who share visual and digital accounts reviewing their visit. Here, I consider the International Criminal Court (ICC) as a tourist site of penal spectatorship, analysing how it may differ from historical ‘dark tourist’ sites like Auschwitz, Alcatraz or Chernobyl. Questions and issues raised here are timely, as international television series like Dark Tourist (2018) on Netflix are characterised as ‘travel TV’, expanding and redefining which places are considered ‘dark’ and open for visitation.

Image: Hannah Graham

The International Criminal Court (ICC or the Court) in The Hague in the Netherlands is an active working court, with parts of the buildings and courtroom hearings the public can visit and observe. Cases of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes of aggression are investigated and tried here. Victims can participate, sharing their views and concerns during judicial proceedings. An exhibition in the court foyer, ‘Justice Matters’, features material objects and information displays, videos, and powerfully affecting visual, written and audio contributions from victims and survivors. The ICC also has a small gift shop.

International visitors have been writing reviews to share their opinions and experiences of the ICC, complete with star ratings, attraction rankings and photo uploads (despite photography inside the premises being prohibited) on its Google listing and tourism websites such as Trip Advisor:

‘Excellent food and great dining experience.’

‘Pretty impressive… I think it’s very effective in terms of aesthetics for a human rights defending institution.’

‘You do not feel welcome by the guards at the entrance… their service was so poor!! Have never experienced anything like it.’

‘Very interesting and worth visiting... Attended a hearing of a former African president and could follow proceedings until the session was switched to private.’

Other online reviews are political and counter-argumentative, praising or criticising specific court cases, nations and people in ways unclear whether those reviewers have visited the ICC. In September 2018, the Court’s ‘star rating’ is 3.5 ★★★ out of 5 stars, based on 129 reviews on Google, and 165 questions about it have been posed in the Q&A section of its Google listing. It is ranked #73 of 204 ‘Things to do’ in The Hague/Den Haag in sightseeing lists on Trip Advisor. The ICC is popularly tagged in selfies and holiday happy snaps on Instagram.

This tourist visitor phenomenon is not unique to the ICC as an international court. The European Court of Justice (ECJ), officially known as the Court of Justice of the European Union is featured on the Luxembourg City Tourist Office website and reviewed on Trip Advisor. By its own estimates, the ECJ attracts 673 groups of visitors a year and approximately 442,631 visitors since 1968.

Is the ICC becoming an example of ‘dark tourism’ and penal spectatorship (see Carrabine, 2017, Brown, 2013)? I argue that it is, with the qualification that the ICC can be differentiated from traditional dark sites in a few ways, explored here.

Time – Many ‘dark tourist’ sites are museums and memorials, curated heritage sites of cultural memory. By contrast, the ICC is not curated, nor ‘former’ in its use; it is a working court with calendrical routines, accommodated in modern buildings. It examines conflicts and war crimes far more recent than those of the first and second world wars. The sociology of time and how it is structured personally, culturally and structurally may be useful to analytically distinguish sites of dark tourism, with some focusing on death, disaster and suffering of a bygone era and others, like the ICC, dealing with cases in the present. Time features in how Seaton and Dann (2018) characterise judicial spectacle as ‘live performances of the law’, noting its attraction of public interest and the dark tourist gaze throughout history and in the present. In standard criminal courts, sentencing hearings are done in minutes, by contrast, matters at the ICC can take years.

Place, space, proximity and distance – The ICC is not itself a ‘dark’ site/space, as it is located in a different country to where crimes and their investigations occur. It is about war zones and war crimes, but not in war zones or crime scenes. Dealing with evidence and testimony of some of the gravest atrocities, visitors can vicariously observe the ‘spectacle of suffering’ (Carrabine, 2017) and the pain of Others at a distance, with a displaced or imagined consumption of dark places of massacres, mass graves, mass rapes, torture, abduction. Yet, simultaneously, the ICC offers international visitors the visceral immediacy of seeing accused despots in close proximity during their trial, facing robed judges and prosecutors – the stuff of news headlines and iconic courtroom dramas, in person, on holiday.

Morality, ethics and virtue signalling – This phenomenon raises important ethical questions about how it affects victims, witnesses, defendants, families and staff, and what drives it? Why do tourists feel compelled to associate themselves with the ICC in visibly posting about it using their profiles on social media, Google and tourist websites? Why have over 43,400 people ‘checked in’ to the ICC on Facebook? Diverse reasons may include empathic homage to victims and survivors, to curiosity, through to virtue signalling of morality, cosmopolitanism and educated liberal taste or status – posting online to signal you care about peace and justice and that you hang out at The Hague, as one does, on holidays.

Power, politics and positionality – The ICC is politicised (see Tiemessen, 2014), and this is reflected in some of the online reviews of it. Which countries are not state parties to the ICC, which countries are considering withdrawing (to avoid prosecution), which leaders have evaded prosecution and which side of a given conflict is referred to the ICC are issues which haven’t gone unnoticed. Some visitor reviews imply privilege (class privilege, white privilege) and potentially orientalist views while spectating in a court which deals with cases often involving people of colour in fragile states or failed states in the Global South, affected by legacies of colonialism and Empire. Who can know and tell, who can see and be seen in this setting, who can avoid it and who doesn’t really get a choice – the agency and structuring of penal spectacle and spectatorship – involves power, politics and positionality.

Displacing the hegemonic dominance of prisons? Courts and their visitors are mostly ignored in academic literatures on dark tourism and penal spectatorship. Visitor reviews suggest the ‘dark’ content of hearings (i.e. horrific crimes) and their performativity attract the gaze of spectatorship moreso than court architecture and the physical site. More pluralised understandings need to be developed, which nuance and transcend the dominance of prisons, detention centres, camps and other institutional physical sites of confinement.

Sociologists have recently begun to devote more attention to international courts. Mikkel Jarle Christensen (2015) describes an emerging sociology of international criminal courts, advocating two approaches to studying them: the sociology of knowledge production (in the vein of Habermas, Foucault, and Latour, considering the influences of ideas on how professional actors in these courts collaborate) and relational sociology (inspired by Bourdieu, considering elites and relational influences on ICCs as institutions). Mikael Rask Madsen (2013) has called for a political sociology of international courts.

Christensen and Madsen’s proposals are apt, but such approaches may not be best placed to explore why the ICC is a tourist attraction. The point being made here is that international courts need to be researched and theorised within and beyond the realms of their official actors, judicial cases and international governance in global society. They are not just elite transnational spaces. People from around the world are visiting to bear witness to grievous tragedies and the quest for peace and justice, or to review what they ate for lunch and the court security in ways not dissimilar to the emoji buttons used in ‘customer’ reviews of security at airports. International criminal courts are featuring in social imaginations and spectatorship across borders, in news media, cosmopolitan holidays, city tours, tourism campaigns, social media and consumer-style ratings. However these may be characterised, they warrant more attention from a publicly engaged social scholarship.

Dr Hannah Graham is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology in the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR), Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Stirling, UK. She is an Australian and British criminologist who researches criminal justice and the sociology of punishment, including technology and digital justice as well as criminal justice work and the professions. Twitter: @DrHannahGraham

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