Heroism in International Justice


Isabella attended two events in the Hague highlighting what heroism by everyday people can look like in the field of international justice, and the qualities that connect These “heroes” across time and space.

American psychologist Philip Zimbardo is best known for his 1971 Stanford prison experiment, which notoriously demonstrated how easily ordinary people can be influenced by their situation to engage in immoral behavior. In recent years, the ethics and authenticity of the Stanford prison experiment have been called into question, and Zimbardo has changed course from the so-called “psychology of evil” that made him famous. His latest research focuses on heroism.

Zimbardo uses the concept of the “banality of heroism” (a counterpoint to Arendt’s banality of evil) to convey that in the same way that performing an immoral act does not depend on a unique disposition towards evil, performing a heroic act does not depend on a unique disposition towards goodness. According to Zimbardo, anyone can be “a hero in waiting” when equipped with a heroic imagination. In 2011, Zimbardo co-founded the Heroic Imagination Project (HIP) to explore how insights from social psychology can help ordinary people take effective action in challenging situations. In addition to conducting research, HIP develops and implements training programs and public initiatives to inspire and encourage everyday heroism around the world – particularly among young people. In the words of one of HIP’s students in Italy, “Being heroic does not mean having superpowers. Being heroic means being there for others and helping them, regardless of their gender, age, or race.”

Two events I recently attended in the Hague highlighted what heroism by everyday people can look like in the field of international justice, and the qualities that connect international justice “heroes” across time and space.


The Auschwitz Volunteer

In March, the Humanity House – an interactive museum and education platform – hosted Polish professor and historian Marek Kornat to tell the relatively unknown resistance story of Witold Pilecki.

Witold Pilecki was a reserve officer in the Polish army during World War II and co-founder of the Secret Polish Army (Tajna Armia Polska or TAP), a resistance group which operated in German-occupied Poland. In 1940, TAP developed a strategy to infiltrate the recently opened Auschwitz concentration camp. Little was known about the camp at the time, and the purpose of the mission was to gather intelligence about what was taking place there. Pilecki volunteered, and later that year, he was deliberately detained by the German Army, registered under a false name, and sent to Auschwitz.

Once inside the camp, Pilecki formed a new resistance group, the Union of Military Organizations (Zwiazek Organizacji Wojskowej, ZOW), which connected with other underground organizations and worked to lift the morale of the prisoners by disseminating news of the war and smuggling in food, clothing, and medicine from outside. The group was able to communicate regularly with the Home Army (the dominant Polish resistance group during the war) in Warsaw through prisoners who were released from the camp or managed to escape, and later, by radio.

For almost three years, Pilecki meticulously documented the atrocity crimes committed by the Nazis, the dire living conditions at Auschwitz, and the number of arrivals and deaths that occurred there. In 1943, he escaped to Warsaw and presented a detailed report of the horrors he had witnessed, including the use of gas chambers, ovens, slave labor, and sterilization experiments. Pilecki’s report was one of the first eyewitness accounts of Auschwitz, and the first comprehensive record of a Holocaust death camp obtained by the Allied Forces. At the time, the Allies largely disregarded Pilecki’s record of Auschwitz, calling it exaggerated and rejecting his proposal to attack the camp and liberate the prisoners. Years later, his report would be recognized as “a historical document of the greatest importance.”

Pilecki continued to fight for the resistance until the war’s end. After returning to Poland to gather intelligence on the newly installed communist regime, he was arrested and repeatedly tortured by agents of Poland’s Ministry of Public Security. Determined to protect the other prisoners, Pilecki revealed no sensitive information. In 1948, he was subjected to a show trial. With the help of the testimony of Poland’s future prime minister, Pilecki was sentenced to death on assassination and espionage charges and executed by a shot to the back of his head.

Pilecki’s report remained unpublished in communist Poland and his story suppressed for four decades. In 1990, he and the others sentenced in the show trial were finally rehabilitated, and in 2006 he was honored with Poland’s highest decoration. In 2000, the report was made available to the public for the first time, and in 2015, it was translated into English and published as the highly-acclaimed book, The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery.

As representatives from the Polish Embassy and the Pelicki Institute made clear at the conclusion of the lecture, Pilecki is now regarded as a national hero. The event moderator, Dr. Iwona Gusc, pointed out that given what little was known about Auschwitz at the time, Pilecki could not have fully comprehended what he was signing up for when he volunteered, and that this part of his story had received too much attention.

Regardless of what one considers Pilecki’s bravest act, virtually no one disputes his unparalleled commitment to the resistance and to the prisoners of Auschwitz. Hearing his story, it is easy to feel like the vast majority of us will never have the opportunity to put our moral character to the test on such an extraordinary scale. For me, the Hague Institute for the Innovation of Law (HiiL)’s 2019 Innovating Justice Forum – an annual gathering of global justice leaders and entrepreneurs working towards people-centered, evidence-based solutions – was a reminder that this is not necessarily the case.

The Innovating Justice Forum

Located at the Peace Palace, the two-day event centered on the theme “From Justice Innovation to Scale,” and showcased the final stage of a justice innovation competition that HiiL organizes each year. Twelve entrepreneurs from ten different countries had been selected from a pool of 1000 and invited to pitch their ideas to the global justice leaders who had gathered at the Forum. The innovations presented addressed a wide range of justice problems, from exploitative contracting practices in South Africa to underutilized welfare schemes in India. Each innovation was evaluated on the basis of demonstrated impact and potential for scale and replicability.

The winner of this year’s competition was CrimeSync, a startup in Sierra Leone that improves the capacity of criminal justice agencies to organize, collaborate, and share information through a centralized electronic case management system. CrimeSync also benefits citizens by making it easier to check the status of ongoing cases. The second and third place winners – Haqdarshak and Creative Contracts – similarly empower everyday people by increasing their access to information that affects their livelihood.

What most inspired me about the twelve pitches was not the innovations themselves, but the creative and compassionate people behind them.

Sorieba Daffae studied law and engineering and had a successful career in business development and information technology before co-founding CrimeSync. After learning that Sierra Leone’s dysfunctional criminal justice system was a major contributor to the country’s 11-year-long civil war, he decided to apply his multidisciplinary skillset to improving it. The data-driven case management platform that Daffae developed has already succeeded in reducing case processing time, prison overcrowding, and government expenditures – all while increasing accountability within the justice system.

Rob de Rooy practiced as independent commercial attorney before founding Creative Contracts. De Rooy observed that South Africans with low literacy were frequently asked to sign employment contracts that they did not understand, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation. He began to explore the possibility of communicating contract clauses using pictures instead of words. Through a series of collaborations with lawyers, academics, and cartoonists, De Rooy succeeded in developing the first professional quality “comic contract” for one of his commercial clients. The illustrated contract was easily understood and signed by 300 farm workers, and De Rooy’s contracts have since become the company’s “new normal.” Creative Contracts is currently working with a number of different organizations to improve their business relationships and outcomes by making their contracts more accessible.

Like Pilecki, Sorieba Daffae, Rob de Roy, and the other innovators at the Forum were ordinary people who recognized an injustice in their environment and chose to address it. While early-stage justice startups may seem insignificant compared to what Pilecki undertook, research conducted by the Task Force on Justice suggests that they are fundamental to closing the global justice gap.

According to their recently published report, an estimated 4.4 billion people are excluded from the opportunities that law provides, 1.5 billion people have unmet justice needs, and 244 million people are subject to conditions of extreme injustice. Eliminating the global inequities these numbers represent will require bringing the justice innovations of many individuals around the world to scale.

Furthermore, the bravery of justice innovators should not be underestimated. A major reason for the Forum’s emphasis on potential for scale is security: government officials that benefit from the selectivity of the status quo are prone to suppress initiatives that challenge it. A startup that is unable to scale its services may not be able to attain the popularity and visibility necessary for its long-term survival.

So how do we inspire and empower more people to do what Pilecki and the Innovating Justice Forum contestants have done – to put their own comfort and security on the line to challenge injustice around them? Though heroism research is still in its infancy, Zimbardo’s Heroic Imagination Project (HIP) workshops focus on three areas: 1) helping people overcome the pressure to conform to group norms; 2) learning to identify and counteract bias and discrimination; and 3) developing the resilience needed to combat the bystander effect – defined as, “the impulse to stand by in emergencies when others are present who might intervene.”

After the Forum, I spoke to HiiL Communications Specialist Katie Davis to try to understand how “heroic imagination” could be fostered to address long-term injustices, the root causes of which are not always clear. Davis emphasized the power of data to inspire and facilitate grassroots innovation. Rather than relying on a handful of entrepreneurs to identify and address justice problems in their communities, HiiL seeks to activate broader participation in local reform. One way they do this is by sharing their findings with paralegals, judges, and other justice system stakeholders in the communities they conduct research in. This information gives people a bird’s eye view of the justice problems in their environment that they might otherwise not have had access to – the kind that Pilecki lacked.

With that said, Pilecki’s story serves as an important reminder that a complete understanding of a particular injustice is neither necessary nor sufficient for making a change. What unites all international justice heroes is their decision to act. Pilecki’s reflection on what it was like to be rounded up for transport to Auschwitz makes this lesson clear:

SS men with automatic weapons were stationed on all four sides.

There were about one thousand eight hundred or so of us.

What really annoyed me the most was the passivity of this group of Poles. All those picked up were already showing signs of crowd psychology, the result being that our whole crowd behaved like a herd of passive sheep. 

A simple thought kept nagging me: stir up everyone and get this mass of people moving.