Have you ever found yourself reading a book and getting so incensed by the characters and their actions that you just wish there were a court of law that would step in and ensure that justice gets done? Our Grade 12 students faced this situation recently while reading Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, and their teacher, Ms. Marquis, proposed that they put Gilead on trial. Since Gilead isn’t in Canada, we had to consider the International Criminal Court as a means to do so.

With that in mind, we invited Ms. Jacqueline Palumbo-Sugunasiri, Senior General Counsel and Head of Treaty Negotiations at the Department of Justice of Canada, and Mr. Terry Beitner, Director and General Counsel of the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Section, also at the Department of Justice, to share their expertise on the laws involved and how a state or the leaders of a state can indeed be brought to justice. We started at the beginning: what constitutes a crime, how are criminal investigations and prosecutions conducted, how do we honour the presumption of innocence, and how do nations decide whether they have the jurisdiction to prosecute a crime committed outside national borders? Analogies to hockey were made to help us understand who could be considered culpable. A surprise visitor, the Honourable Judge Kimberly Prost, met with us virtually, streaming in from the International Criminal Court in The Hague, and she felt the case against the leaders of Gilead was very strong.

The Testaments, set in the same patriarchal society of Gilead as The Handmaid’s Tale,  recounts how three women are drawn together by cosmic forces to destroy the current order. Lydia, an “Aunt”, or Handmaid’s instructor, is a mole who smuggles important information from Gilead to the Mayday Resistance. One of her charges, Agnes, is a young woman who escaped an arranged marriage and has just recently found out she is the daughter of a Handmaid. Fed up with the treatment she and other women and girls are experiencing in Gilead, she teams up with Lydia to bring down the regime and reunite with her long lost sister, a Gileadean fugitive born to an escaped handmaid in Canada named ‘Baby Nicole’. The novel follows these three women’s stories as their lives intertwine with one another and culminates with Agnes and Nicole being reunited, the group escaping to Canada, and the Gileadean regime collapsing.

Guided by Ms. Palumbo-Sugunasiri, who works with Canadian and foreign police and prosecutors under treaties between Canada and other countries to fight international crimes like war crimes, students explored important concepts in the criminal justice system including jurisdiction to prosecute and the importance of international cooperation treaties. They focused on the investigative and prosecution challenges when the crime was committed in a nation like the Republic of Gilead that does not honour basic human rights and does not cooperate with the international community. They examined how the extradition process under treaties could assist in bringing the Gilead perpetrators to justice before the courts in Canada or potentially the International Criminal Court. The next question that plagued the students’ minds was wondering how the international community could have intervened earlier to prevent the atrocities of Gileadean society. This question was addressed by Mr. Terry Beitner, who walked the students through the differences between crimes against humanity and war crimes. For example, in The Testaments, the revolution that led to the creation of Gilead began with the assassination of the President of the United States. The students, with the guidance of Mr. Beitner, deduced that the assassination would not be classified as a war crime, as the president is the Commander-in-Chief of the US military and, therefore a combatant. They did find, however, that the treatment of women in Gilead could be seen as crimes against humanity, as women’s rights under the regime were slashed and their liberties severely restricted, both during and after wartime. Mr. Beitner then explained to the students the various steps that could be taken in reality if a country were to impose such draconian laws as Gilead. He described the various ways in which the international community could take action against such a regime, such as imposing sanctions, rescinding trade deals, or installing peacekeepers in-country.

This discussion around war crimes and crimes against humanity was furthered with the addition of Honourable Judge Kimberly Prost of the ICC. Judge Prost, currently the only Canadian serving on the panel, has served as counsel on various important international cases, one being the 2006 case on crimes committed in Srebrenica and Zepa during the Yugoslav Wars. Streaming in from the Hague, Judge Prost told the students she agreed with the students’ assessment and felt that putting the leaders of Gilead on trial for the crimes against humanity would be a fruitful endeavour.

Breaking down the testimonies of our three witness narrators in The Testaments, the students are currently gathering the proof necessary to hold the leaders of Gilead to account. In speaking about the exercise, teacher Teresa Marquis says, “Crimes against humanity are crimes whether in the fictional world of Gilead or in the real world…Fiction allows us insight into what it means to be human, warts and all”. We would like to thank Ms. Palumbo-Sugunasiri, Mr. Beitner, and the Honourable Judge Prost for taking time out of their busy days to join us, and for offering the grade 12 students some deeper insight into their study of the novel. Their participation in this event really brought the narrative to life and helped students to connect the book and its themes to the real world.