About the College

An International Perspective on Criminal Law

From 2003–04, when few members of the international community thought about the three-year Bosnian War that ended almost a decade earlier, Caroline Davidson spent her days helping to bring a case against officers of the Bosnian-Serb army for crimes against humanity, war crimes and complicity in genocide.

As a lawyer working for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, Netherlands, Davidson teamed up with international human rights and criminal lawyers to help bring justice to victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, the largest mass murder in Europe since World War II.

“Vidoje Blagojević and Dragan Jokić, two former officers in the Republika Srpska Army, were prosecuted for their involvement in the killing of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims over the course of just a few days,” she explained. “The facts of the case were shocking.”

Davidson believes prosecuting criminals for international human rights violations is important to survivors and their family members. “We cannot allow such crimes to occur with impunity,” she said. “We tried to bring some measure of justice for the victims and their families so they would know what they went through will not be forgotten.”

In addition to seeking justice for the victims, Davidson believes such cases create invaluable historical records of events. “Until very recently, many people in the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia denied the Srebrenica massacre ever took place,” she explained. “When the co-defendants of Blagojević and Jokić pleaded guilty, there was open admission of the slaughter and the role of Bosnian-Serb forces in it. That’s significant because it becomes a historical record of the truth — an acknowledgement that the crimes actually occurred.”

The pursuit of historical fact has been of interest to Davidson throughout much of her life. A native of Toronto, Davidson studied history at Princeton University. “The excellent teaching of several history professors really got me interested in the subject,” she explained.

While at Princeton, Davidson participated in summer study abroad programs that enabled her to travel to both France and Germany. She also studied in Spain for a semester. “I always had a knack for languages; that fed my interest in travel,” said Davidson, who is fluent in Spanish and French; proficient in Portuguese, Italian and German; and has a working knowledge of Bosnian.

After college, Davidson’s proficiency in Spanish helped her land a job as a business analyst with McKinsey & Co. in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She spent a year working for the firm before deciding to apply to law school.

“Maybe I watched too much TV as a kid, but the law seemed appealing to me,” Davidson said of her decision to enroll in Harvard Law School. “It seemed a way to combine my interest in history, research and international topics. I was pretty open-minded about what law school could offer me, which gave me a chance to consider different legal topics. I took an asylum and refugee class my first year that really sparked my interest in human rights law.”

During her first and second years of law school, Davidson worked on the Harvard Human Rights Journal, an annual publication of international human rights scholarship. She served as executive editor in her final year. “Working on the journal gave me the opportunity to work alongside others and get acquainted with different topics within human rights law,” she said.

Following graduation in 2000, Davidson served as a judicial clerk to Judge Alfred T. Goodwin of the Ninth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals. She drafted bench memoranda and opinions on a wide variety of federal appeals cases, including criminal, human rights and immigration cases. “The clerkship gave me the ability to understand litigation from the perspective of the courts,” she said. “It was a good introduction to how the court system works from within. As a litigator, it is useful to understand how the courts are looking at specific issues.”

When her clerkship ended, Davidson became a litigation associate in the San Francisco office of Howard, Rice, Nemerovski, Canady, Falk & Rabkin. “It was a good introduction to litigation,” Davidson said of her two years with the firm.

In 2003, Davidson served as a human rights fellow at the ICTY in The Hague. It was the first of three positions she would hold with the ICTY. She returned the following year as a lawyer/consultant to help prosecute Blagojević and Jokić. In January 2005, she moved to Sarajevo to work in the prosecutor’s office of the Special Department for War Crimes for the State Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina, where she reviewed and analyzed cases for prosecution and coordinated investigation activities with the
ICTY. At the end of the year, she accepted a position as assistant federal public defender in Portland, Ore.

“I thought it was a good idea to learn about domestic criminal prosecution, as well as international,” she said of the move to Portland. Davidson represented people charged with federal crimes and violations of supervised release conditions and in habeas corpus proceedings in federal court, including appeals to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Philosophically, the transition from prosecution to public defense was an easy one for Davidson. Whether as a prosecutor or a defense attorney, I’ve always believed that a person’s right to a fair trial must be protected,” she noted. “In the domestic arena, criminal defense was a good fit for me. I believe that, in the United States, minorities and the poor are systematically disadvantaged in the criminal justice system. Recognizing that most criminal defendants have not had the opportunities I’ve had in life, I’ve felt more comfortable in the defense role.”

In 2007, with some defense work under her belt, Davidson returned to the ICTY to work as a legal officer in the prosecutor’s office. “TheInternational Criminal Tribunal will be winding down in the next few years, so I thought this might be my last opportunity to work on a case there,” she said of the decision to move back to the Netherlands. During her last stint, she prosecuted members of the Bosnian-Croat military and political figures allegedly responsible for the 1992–94 ethnic cleansing and persecution of Bosnian Muslims.

Davidson believes a drawback to working in international criminal law is that you never know if you’ve “done right” by the victims’ families. “You don’t always get satisfaction for the victims or their families,” she said. “When you’re dealing with war crimes and genocide, the end result never matches the crime.”

Davidson, who joined the Willamette law faculty in August, looks forward to addressing these issues with the students enrolled in her criminal law courses. “I want students to understand the realities of the criminal system and to get a look at the bigger picture, at the larger issues,” she said. “I also want to help students understand why the law is the way it is and think about how to change it.”

One key lesson she hopes her students will learn is the importance empathy plays in legal practice. “It is important, in both prosecution and defense, to try to understand the challenges people face and how they got where they are,” she said. “It’s important to think objectively as a lawyer, but also to remember that a little empathy goes a long way.”

No doubt, her students will receive excellent instruction in this lesson as well.


Caroline DavidsonCaroline Davidson

“You don’t always get satisfaction for the victims or their families. When you’re dealing with war crimes and genocide, the end result never matches the crime.”

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