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Photo courtesy of Alina Utrata

Stories Courts Tell: Human rights minor reflects on pathway to honors thesis (Alina Utrata, '17)

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Photo courtesy of Alina Utrata


Human Rights Minor Alina Utrata, '17, recently completed her honors thesis through the Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law entitled "Stories Courts Tell: The Problematic History of the Yugoslav Tribunal in Bosnia and Herzegovina." Utrata's thesis examines the impact that the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) had on Bosnia. She argues that international courts, like the Yugoslav Tribunal, craft a collective narrative about the past in order to shape a transition from conflict to peace.

"When I first started researching the Yugoslav Tribunal while working for Professor Norman Naimark my freshman year, it was shocking how negatively most Bosnians perceived the court," Utrata said. "No one in the country really accepted the court's rulings, and I wondered why. Through researching over the past few years, I came to the conclusion that facts often don't really matter to people—stories matter. So what was the story the ICTY was telling?"

Utrata credits Handa Center Director David Cohen's class, "Transitional Justice, Human Rights, and International Criminal Tribunals," with providing much of the academic background for her thesis.

"Professor Cohen's class really helped me solidify my understanding of the history of transitional justice, which contextualized my argument about the ICTY within the larger history of international trials," Utrata said. "Professor Cohen is such a wealth of knowledge about all of the intrigues and background of these courts. And, of course, he introduced me to the Handa Center, which has been such an incredible resource and support to me throughout this entire process."

During the summer of 2015, Utrata traveled to Bosnia and Herzegovina through a Stanford Global Studies internship at the Balkan Institute for Conflict Resolution, Responsibility and Reconciliation in Sarajevo. She also received a Research/Travel grant from the Center for Russian, Eastern European and Eurasian Studies (CREEES) to conduct research.

"It was really an amazing experience because I actually got to be in Bosnia, to go to places like Srebrenica, and talk to Bosnians about how they felt about the court," Utrata said. "Through the generous support of CREEES, I was also able to travel to The Hague and see the Ratko Mladić trial at the ICTY. The Handa Center also introduced me to several officials at the Tribunal, who I was able to interview."

Utrata was a Handa Center summer intern during the summer of 2016, where she worked as part of the trial monitoring team at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC).

"Being in Cambodia really impressed upon me the uniqueness of the Yugoslav Tribunal case," Utrata explained. "The ECCC has been received very differently by Cambodians than the ICTY was by Bosnians, and it's filling a different role in the country. I use a lot of comparative examples between Cambodia and Bosnia in my thesis."

In the fall of 2016, Utrata was the first undergraduate student to declare a human rights minor through the Handa Center's new academic program. She is also the Student Assistant at the Handa Center for the 2016-2017 academic year.

"The Handa Center was so supportive and helpful throughout this year," Utrata said. "Several times, I would rush in, normally in a panic, and Penelope [van Tuyl], the Associate Director of the Center, would sit and talk to me about my thesis, or recommend books or articles that would help, or I would even just sit and work in the Center. It was so wonderful to have an academic home at the Handa Center."

Next year, Utrata will be pursuing a Master's Degree in Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen's University Belfast as a 2017 Marshall Scholar. A full version of her thesis is available through the Stanford library here.

Alina Utrata

History and the Law Major
Human Rights Minor
Class of 2017

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