A Conversation with David M. Crane, Recipient of CVT’s 2014 Eclipse Award | The Center for Victims of Torture

A Conversation with David M. Crane, Recipient of CVT’s 2014 Eclipse Award

Monday, June 23, 2014

Each year, CVT presents the Eclipse Award around June 26 – International Day in Support of Victims of Torture – to an individual or organization that has played a crucial role in the prevention of torture or treatment of torture survivors. The 2014 recipient is Professor David M. Crane, who is being honored for his extraordinary efforts in fighting impunity for torture. Professor Crane will be presented the Eclipse Award on June 25 in Washington, DC as part of an expert briefing on Fighting Impunity: Combating Torture & Human Trafficking. Paul Linnell, the Humphrey Fellow for CVT in our Washington DC office, recently spoke to Professor Crane about his work seeking accountability and justice for crimes against humanity. 

Paul Linnell
Paul Linnell


Paul: You spent over 30 years working for the federal government of the United States and then another four years with the United Nations as Chief Prosecutor for the Special Court for Sierra Leone. What initially inspired you to pursue a career in public service and what kept you motivated to continue this work throughout your career?

Professor David M. Crane
Professor David M. Crane

David: My public service career started at the age of 23 as a platoon leader in the 101st Airborne in the Vietnam era, and it was the hardest job that I ever   had. This is where I began to learn the concepts of leadership, management, taking care of people, and listening to people that have more experience than you as to what should be done. I also learned the concept of service, duty, and responsibility under great pressure. After becoming an Army Captain I went through the fully funded legal education program and received a law degree from Syracuse. I was a judge advocate and a legal advisor to several special operations units, which was an interesting and fascinating time of my career. I retired from the military in 1996 and was appointed as a member of the Senior Executive Service and served as the Inspector General in charge of overseeing all of the Department of Defense intelligence assets.

In August of 2001, I was surprised to receive a call from the White House asking if I would be interested in being the United States’ nominee for the position of Chief Prosecutor to the Special Court for Sierra Leone. In October my resume was handed to the Secretary General as the U.S. nominee and after a series of interviews I was offered the position in April 2002. I accepted the job and for three years we indicted, arrested, and prosecuted all of the major players in the tragic “Blood Diamond” story, including Charles Taylor. After leaving Sierra Leone I continued my public service through teaching, as well as working on major projects in Syria, Liberia, South Sudan, and Azerbaijan.

Paul: In your role as Chief Prosecutor for the Special Court for Sierra Leone you were responsible for bringing accountability and justice to those responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity and other violations of international human rights committed during Sierra Leone’s civil war. What were the biggest challenges that you faced in this role, and what were some of the lessons learned that could be used to improve similar transitional justice mechanisms now and in the future?

David: One of things that I’ve been doing throughout my career is making sure that you always have a plan which takes into account logistics and financial considerations. In Sierra Leone I developed a 10-phase strategic plan which I stuck to the entire time that I was there. This allowed me to achieve the objectives and the mandate that was given to me by the Security Council. One of the lessons learned is that if you do something like this, you must plan out from beginning and through the end. I built an office around a mission instead of a mission around an office, where people were hired based on the mission. Our office of 70 people was very efficient, organized, and everyone knew their roles and responsibilities.

Another important step was engaging the client—the people of Sierra Leone. I initiated the outreach program, which would become the gold standard for outreach programs. No previous trials—from Nuremburg to Rwanda—ever had an outreach program. But I walked the countryside for three years listening to my client telling me what happened and followed up to ask them how we were doing. This allowed the people of Sierra Leone to get a sense of where their court was going and to see that the rule of law was more powerful than the rule of the gun. This outreach program existed for the entire 10 years of the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

The biggest challenge that I had was indifference. It was hard to get the world to focus on the tragedy in West Africa. So my job was to get diplomats, politicians and the general public interested and focused on our work and to support us politically and financially. I traveled the world talking to people about the Special Court for Sierra Leone to achieve this support and financial backing. I also faced some problems from the United States administration after I indicted Charles Taylor—they were furious with me for doing that. But I told them that my charter is to look at everybody, and that I’m going to indict everybody based on my mandate and not anything else. They were not happy, but my job wasn’t to keep the U.S. happy.

At the end of the day the Special Court for Sierra Leone, known as “the little engine that could,” was able to seek justice for the murder, rape, maiming, and mutilation of more than 1.2 million humans in a fair and just manner to the general satisfaction of the people of Sierra Leone.

Paul: As you know, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence conducted an exhaustive review of the CIA’s rendition, detention, and interrogation program following September 11, 2001. In April, the committee voted across party lines to declassify the report’s executive summary, findings, and conclusions. However, those portions of the report have not yet been publicly released by the Administration. How important is it for the report to be made public to the American people? And what steps should be taken to ensure that those in the U.S. government responsible for violations of international human rights are held accountable?

David: The United States is a republic, and the people have an absolute constitutional and legal right to be informed as to what their government is doing. For ten years there has been a gap where we have no idea what happened. I’m frankly sad to say that the Obama administration has perpetuated that, and also that Congress has failed in its duty to demand hearings and demanding that facts be known. Blame falls on both the Bush and Obama administrations, as well as Congress, to keep the people informed as to what really took place after 9/11. Not only people tortured, crimes committed, and violations of U.S. law, but also the rampant monitoring of U.S. and foreign persons and gathering and storing information without authority. I used to oversee that process, and it never happened under my watch. They have abused and violated the process, and Congress has failed in its duty to monitor that process. Now we are beginning to realize how far we went down this dark road of gathering personal information in violation of the law. And nothing will be done about it, all in the name of “national security.”

At the end of the day, Osama bin Laden won. He knocked America off of the moral high ground, as everybody doubts that America believes in the rule of law, and he has turned the American people paranoid.

But I’m always amazed by this republic. We’ve gone through other dark days in our history, and the pendulum is starting to swing back. Over time we’ll start to learn more and the American people will have some sense of what took place during these years.

Paul: You will receive the Center for Victims of Torture’s Eclipse Award on June 25 for your work on ending impunity, including the founding of Impunity Watch, an international non-profit that documents human rights violations and promotes accountability for those responsible. What are some of the reasons why impunity persists around the world, and what steps can be taken to end this practice?

David: Impunity has existed throughout the history of mankind. However, in the past 20 years there have been significant steps where mankind has begun the process by which we will hold accountable heads of state, thugs, dictators, etc. who will attack their own people. Yet we’re still at the beginning of the beginning.

To counter that, the bright red thread of all of this is politics. We have the experience, the rules, procedures, evidence and jurisprudence by which we can hold anybody accountable for international crimes. At the end of the day, it is not a legal decision to do so, but a political decision. Right now the world is overwhelmed by political challenges at all levels of international criminal law, and we’re taking one step forward and two steps back. As we see geopolitical power shifts—with the U.S. backing away after 10 years of war and a resurgent China and Russia—we are going through a transition where the outcome is uncertain. This uncertainty allows dictators and thugs to feed on the periphery and continue to commit these atrocious acts.

However, the role of social media has changed the dynamic. When I was in West Africa there was no social media. Now, every human being in the world has a phone and has the capability of recording anything and can inform the world in almost real time. Dictators and thugs committing impunity are now known to the world immediately. The challenge now is that there is almost too much information and the world becomes numb to the daily atrocity that we see. It is a challenge to ensure that the world remains compassionate enough to do something.

Paul: Of the many individuals that you have met and worked with throughout your distinguished career, who is someone that has served as an inspiration for you and why?

David: Colin Powell is someone that I admire greatly with his moral and principled stance of looking at the world. He had the ability to stand for something and not deviate from that, even as a politician. Also Senator Patrick Leahy (2013 CVT Eclipse Award recipient)—a quiet, steady hand throughout his Senate career has always stood up for the rule of law. He sought the right balance by which both sides of the aisle can achieve an end result that allows victims of atrocity and torture to be represented.

David M. Crane is a Professor of Practice at the Syracuse University College of Law and the founder of Impunity Watch. Previously, he was the founding Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone from 2002-2005. Prior to that, Mr. Crane served for more than 30 years with the federal government of the United States.

Paul Linnell is the Humphrey Fellow for CVT in Washington D.C. He recently completed his first year at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, where he is pursuing a Master’s Public Policy with a concentration in Global Public Policy. Paul previously served as Assistant Program Coordinator for The Carter Center’s Democracy Program, working in support of election observation projects in Egypt, Jordan, South Sudan, and Sudan.


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