The state-of-the-art courtroom at Penn State Law will transform into the set of a new television and interactive series World on Trial, in which viewers around the world will render verdicts on provocative international human rights issues. On September 20 the eminent human rights barrister Cherie Booth QC, wife of the former British Prime Minister, will preside over the first trial which will be on the French “headscarf law.”
“By presenting both sides of sharply contested international human rights issues in the context of courtroom trials, our goal is to bring awareness to important human rights issues and the international treaties that govern state conduct,” said Penn State Law faculty member Randall Robinson. An acclaimed human rights advocate and author, Professor Robinson is the creator and host of the program. “Contemporary media coverage of these topics lacks the depth that World on Trial can offer viewers.”
To produce the new series Penn State Law
and Penn State’s School of International Affairs
have partnered with an Emmy Award-winning team from Penn State Public Broadcasting. In addition to the jury watching the live courtroom debate in the Lewis Katz Building, remote juries at distinguished universities throughout the world will view the proceedings by video. They will then deliberate and render their own verdicts. Professional commentators and viewers will assess any differences among verdicts.
“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 Phil McConnaughay
. He stressed that creating a dialogue and forum for discussion is a key objective of the program which goes well beyond broadcast television. “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
More about the pilot episode
The pilot episode of World on Trial will examine the legality of France’s 2004 “headscarf law,” which forbids the wearing of conspicuous religious garb in primary and secondary public schools. Should the law be stricken as a discriminatory and inhospitable “Islamophobic” effort to forbid Muslim girls in public schools from expressing their religious beliefs? Or, should the law be upheld as an appropriate mechanism of preserving French secularism in the public arena, with an important ancillary benefit of allowing Muslim girls who choose not to veil to be secure in their choice, at least in public schools?
The presiding jurist will be the eminent human rights barrister and wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair Cherie Booth QC. Harvard Law Professor and renowned trial lawyer Charles Ogletree will lead the challenge to the headscarf law; noted French avocat Rémy Schwartz, who served as Rapporteur of the Stasi Commission that recommended the headscarf law, will lead the defense. Prosecution witnesses will include John R. Bowen, the Dunbar-Van Cleve Professor of Arts and Sciences at Washington University, St. Louis and author of Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves (Princeton 2007) and Can Islam be French (Princeton 2009), and Widney Brown, Senior Director of International Law, Policy and Campaigns, Amnesty International, London, and a specialist in women’s rights. Defense witnesses will include Hanifa Cherifi, a leading sociologist and official of the French Ministry of Education who served as the only Muslim woman member of the Stasi Commission, and Karima Bennoune, an authority on international law and the approach of international law to Muslim fundamentalism, who is Professor of Law and the Arthur L. Dickson Scholar at Rutgers School of Law, Newark.
Additional Planned Episodes
Future episodes of World on Trial will include similarly distinguished participants contesting such issues as the United States’ use of unpiloted drones to target suspected terrorists; Nigeria’s responsibilities to impoverished indigenous populations in the oil rich Niger Delta; India’s response to child labor practices within certain traditional castes; certain Israeli eviction and resettlement practices pertaining to homes occupied by Palestinians; particular Chinese government practices toward Uighurs; certain Sri Lankan practices toward Tamils; and similar issues of significance worldwide that raise sharply contested questions of compliance with various international human rights treaties.
About Randall Robinson
The creator and host of the series is acclaimed human rights advocate and author Randall Robinson, perhaps best known for organizing the international corporate boycott of South Africa that was instrumental in ending apartheid. His personal hunger strike during the Clinton administration contributed to the change in U.S. policy that led to the restoration to power of the first democratically elected government of Haiti. Randall Robinson is Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Penn State Law and at Penn State’s School of International Affairs.