'World on Trial' takes nations to court on human rights

September 24, 2010

The Apfelbaum Family Courtroom was crowded with cameras, equipment and people from several continents while five Penn State jurors awaited opening statements for the pilot episode of "World on Trial."

In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted without a single dissenting vote. It was the first time in human history that a set of individual human rights were recognized and internationally agreed upon, explained creator and host of "World on Trial" Professor Randall Robinson of Penn State Law.

"Have nations that agreed to be bound by these laws obeyed these laws?” he asked. “We have exempted no nation from scrutiny.”

Robinson was instrumental to ending Apartheid in South Africa. As host of this program, he will later put other nations on trial, rich and poor, big and small. He said that future episodes will try the United States, Saudi Arabia and Sri Lanka, among other nations.

After a welcome from the judge and a brief documentary video on the case at hand, famed trial attorney and Harvard professor Charles Ogletree stood before the judge and took a breath.

“May it please the court,” he said.


He broke into a smile, and a few people chuckled. He was not supposed to be standing.

The guest judge is renowned barrister Cherie Booth QC, who also is the wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

“I was intrigued by the whole idea of this series of judging nations by the covenants they sign up to, what they do in practice, and in particular I was interested as a feminist and a person of faith,” she later said. She wedged her trip to Penn State amid her obligations as a mediator, arbitrator and part-time judge.

Televised, fictional proceedings focused on a real issue: whether France’s 2004 ban on headscarves in public schools violates international human rights law. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) enumerates an individual right to “freedom of thought, conscience and religion." UDHR goes on to state "this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

The Arguments

French avocat Remy Schwartz claimed that the law protects Muslim girls from family pressure to wear a headscarf in school. He emphasized that the French legal system values secularism. “This is not a real issue today in France because no one contests the need for this rule in public school,” he said through a translator.

“Prosecution” witness John R. Bowen, the Dunbar-Van Cleve Professor of Arts and Sciences at Washington University, St. Louis, is a sociologist who has studied France in great depth and authored two books on the relationship between France and Islam. “No one can show that putting on a headscarf causes violence,” he testified. He said the law is about “opposing Islam by picking on an easy target." He said that the ban has harmed many Muslim girls who wish to cover their faces during school hours.

Karima Bennoune explained that the headscarf ban protects girls by giving them a good reason not to wear a veil in public school. “Not being veiled has caused violence,” she said. “But the offense of not being veiled is only possible in the presence of veiling.” Bennoune is a scholar of international law and a professor of law and the Arthur L. Dickson Scholar at Rutgers School of Law in Newark.

Attorneys did not object to one another's questions or an occasional instance of witness speculation. "We attempted to preserve the essence of trial by jury without burdening the proceedings with all the technical requirements that might apply in the real world,” said Penn State Law Professor Gary Gildin, who teaches trial advocacy and helped create the program.

In closing arguments, Professor Ogletree asked jurors to think of Muslim girls as the minority and to protect the vulnerable. "Think about what this law represents. We're saying 'don't single out Muslim girls when everybody should be treated equally." Schwartz' closing argument was blunt. He said that the 2004 law banning ostentatious religious attire in public schools was the result of years of careful society-wide debate, not France suddenly losing its senses.

No Easy Answers

Audience member and graduate student of engineering Runkun Jiang absorbed the day's proceedings, which went on for several hours. “I didn’t find an answer,” he said. “It’s not just a question of law -- it involves anthropology, sociology and questions of racism.”

Professor Ogletree later said, “The idea of this series is phenomenal,” emphasizing that we in the United States need to address global issues publicly even if we all do not agree with one another. A teacher of advocacy and conflict resolution, Professor Ogletree was also drawn to the series for a practical reason.

"I cherish a teachable moment,” he said. 

The Verdict and Beyond

Penn State's jury returned with its verdict in the evening. They found that by enacting a ban on ostentatious religious attire in a public school France had violated the freedom of religious expression.

Juror Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia said that she was "struck" with the way the defense presented the most "compelling" witness but ultimately failed to prove that the law was necessary to fulfill its stated goals. (The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is the enforcement mechanism for the UDHR and provides exceptions detailing when Article 18 rights may be limited.) Wadhia is a clinical professor at Penn State Law and directs the Center for Immigrants' Rights.

The verdict is not the final word on the subject, as other juries will have the opportunity to weigh in. The televised series will feature the deliberations and verdicts of juries in Paris, France, and Istanbul, Turkey.

The "trial" at Penn State Law is only the beginning of a worldwide project. “The idea is to explore the tension between universal and culturally-relative notions of human rights, and the arguments available to states defending alleged human rights abuses within their jurisdiction,” said Penn State Law Dean Philip McConnaughay. “The Web-based elements of the program will include a robust array of informational and interactive educational materials and tools related to the issues and parties of each 'World on Trial' episode.”

  • Professor Charles Ogletree of Harvard University makes his case before Judge Cherie Booth QC.

    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 22, 2015