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With Passion Anew, Johnson Leads Students to The Netherlands

Published: June 15, 2010

The Hague Skyline

The Hague skyline

Communication Studies’ Ann Johnson is on her way to the Netherlands this month as she leads CSULB students to the city of peace and justice, The Hague.

Her class on Argumentation and Debate runs from June 18-July 18 and focuses on The Hague, home to the International Criminal Court, the UN International Court of Justice and the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Her students will have the opportunity to observe court proceedings, meet with court representatives, visit archives and the Peace Palace as well as take a look at Amsterdam’s Dutch Resistance Museum and the International Court Museum.

Travel re-ignited her passion for teaching with her first trip to Amsterdam last year. “I feel I’ve taken up a new cause,” she said. “Travel helps me to make my classes more viable. It is the most exciting thing I’ve ever done. I can see this becoming a permanent part of my teaching career.”

The International Criminal Court (ICC) is where Johnson’s class will spend most of its time. The ICC, she explained, is a permanent tribunal to prosecute individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression. The court came into being on July 1, 2002 — the date its founding treaty, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, entered into force — and it can only prosecute crimes committed on or after that date. As of this March, 111 states are members of the court, and a further 38 countries have signed but not ratified the Rome Statute. However, a number of states, including China, India, Russia and the U.S., are critical of the court and have not joined.

“Students on the trip must participate in at least one debate,” explained Johnson, who joined CSULB part-time in 2000 and full-time in 2003. “A typical topic might be whether the U.S. ought to join the ICC. Do we deserve to be exempt from the international laws of war? Debate helps the students to learn.”

Johnson recalls some courtroom fireworks from her first visit that were typical of what students can expect. “We watched the trial of Thomas Ubanga, who was accused of recruiting child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” she recalled. “I remember a mixture of Swahili, English and French that needed translation at the same time Ubanga was objecting to being sketched by a courtroom artist. The translations were piped into head phones much like that of the United Nations General Assembly. It was impressive. The judges were polite and accommodating to the accused. I sensed an urgency to demonstrate fair play.”

Students heard about the recruitment of child soldiers and the status of young women taken to military camps. “We listened to a lot of painful testimony,” she said.

Feedback from her first visit was positive. “The students had a really good time,” she laughed. “They learned a lot about Dutch culture. The fact we were in Holland for four weeks made for a better inter-cultural encounter because we were able to recover from any culture shock. Plus, by being there for a while, the students had enough time to observe the courts. If nothing much was happening at the ICC, they could always visit the International Court of Justice. When UN members have disputes between themselves, they visit the ICJ. Look at pulp mills along rivers in Uruguay. They may not be as interesting as war crime tribunals but they are just as important.”

One important goal of student participation is how to present a case. “This is true not only in a legal setting but before a political body,” she explained. “The students observe how the lawyers present cases and what are the key claims that need defense? How do they find the proper evidence? Students learn all these things. This is a chance for them to sharpen their communication competencies. I want my students to understand they can advocate without insulting. I want them to learn they can speak their minds with confidence but without offending.”

She praises Communication Studies for its support and especially department chair Sharon Downey. “We teach classes in inter-cultural communication and travel plays into that,” she said. “My experience helps me to be a better traveler and teacher. My students and I have learned how communication differs from culture to culture. This department is uniquely situated to take students abroad. Whatever the subject, it can be supplemented with this department’s interest in inter-cultural communication.”

Johnson earned her B.S. from the University of Utah, her M.A. from the University of New Mexico and her Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 2000.

Visiting The Hague with her students has had a profound emotional impact on Johnson.

“On one hand, I’m very sad to see these things going on,” she said. “It’s discouraging to see the slow pace of justice and that humanity has so far to go before it can rid itself of these types of crimes. But on the other hand, I feel hopeful because there are institutions like the International Criminal Court. This is a young institution in a position to evolve and they are hearing their first cases just now. It is discouraging to see how long it will take for humanity to deal with these things but I’m optimistic that these institutions exist, that they work to improve themselves and that maybe someday the U.S. will get on board.”