Dare to dream: how NGOs inspire the fight against impunity
Thomas Unger joined the Board of TRIAL International in May 2018. A lecturer at the Geneva Academy, he has over 15 years of experience in the field of international justice. What triggered his interest? What are the challenges ahead? And how to stay optimistic in an age of skepticism?
TRIAL International: Where does your interest in international justice come from?
Thomas Unger: I was a student in the 1990s, a golden period for international justice. The field was just emerging, with the creation of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the first talks around the International Criminal Court, etc. It was new and exciting, far more dynamic than more traditional areas of the law. I wanted to be a part of it!
My interest also takes roots in my personal history. My Austrian family was siding with the Nazis, and the more they tried to conceal this fact, the more I found myself questioning that heritage. This matter has also taught me not to see things in black and white: my grandmother was a victim of sexual violence at the hand of the Russian Army. My father was the product of this crime. It is crucial to remember that victims can also be perpetrators, and that this does not only apply to countries of the global south, but also happened in Europe. Violations that happened generations ago have a direct bearing today. They don’t just disappear. We need to deal with them.
You have worked for international organizations, NGOs and governments alike. Which did you most enjoy, and why?
Each experience has been enriching in its own way and, taken jointly, they have given me a realistic vision of what each actor can contribute to the fight against impunity. You also need to understand how each institution work in order to make a change. Nevertheless, my heart and passion lies with civil society and academia.
Personal agency is very much reduced within governments or international organizations: they are hierarchical and bureaucratic, and their actions sometimes fall short of their promises. Civil society, on the other hand, is more content-driven. Because it has a bottom-up approach, it allows for greater creativity and freedom. Academia and education generate ideas and contribute to cultural shifts, they are decisive as a driver for a better future.
Yet NGOs have little leverage and rely on States’ goodwill… isn’t that discouraging?
There are ups and downs, and of course I feel the frustration at times. But civil society has the crucial role of giving us vision. NGOs dare to imagine a world where justice is accessible to all. It may never become reality, but keeping alive that perspective, that dream is key to achieving change. And along the way, very concrete – if not always spectacular – battles are won.
I find this balance of realism and utopia at TRIAL International. On the one hand, it has solid legal expertise, bringing about real change in victims’ lives. On the other hand, it shares its vision of a fairer world to a wide audience. When people hear of criminals facing prosecution, they are inspired and want to join in!
You are also a Board member at TRIAL International. What challenges might the organization come across?
TRIAL International has expanded very quickly and very rapidly. It is highly positive, but I have witnessed first-hand the damage a sudden growth can do to an organization. We must therefore prioritize, strategize and plan carefully so we are not overwhelmed by the rapid change. Sustainability also stems from strong management, which is often overlooked in the non-profit sector. These may be very down-to-earth recommendations, but they are how TRIAL will stay a leader in its field and continue to inspire others.