Jose Manuel Igreja Matos, president of the International Association of Judges (IAJ), had no hesitation about holding his organization’s current General Assembly conference in Israel despite a probe of Israel by the International Criminal Court, he told The Jerusalem Post in an exclusive interview.
Speaking on the sidelines of the IAJ conference being held in Israel this week, Matos said despite some global critics of the Jewish state, he did not have “any hesitation whatsoever. We have 94 national associations. Israel is one of those 94. It is exactly the same as if it was another one of the other 93.”
“We were very honored and happy that Israel was interested in organizing the conference,” he said. “The General Assembly is a complex event. It depends on logistics, hard work and demands dedication, a spirit of service and mission, receiving colleagues from all over the world and generosity. We found that with the Israeli Association of Judges. So for us, it was an easy decision.”
Discussing controversies surrounding the method for selecting judges, which is being hotly debated in Israel and many other countries, Matos said: “In recent years, the procedure for appointing judges for supreme courts has been extremely politicized. This is not acceptable. It should depend on criteria, which everyone understands are technical skills, integrity of the judge and experience during his or her career. You cannot appoint a judge exclusively who would be someone who could be comfortable for the government in charge.”
He said this danger is increasing “not only in autocracies, but also in consolidated democracies.”
Furthermore, “the appointment procedure must be transparent, open to the public and with scrutiny in the community, in general, to these situations,” Matos said.
Who can and cannot join?
Getting more specific, he said the “IAJ insisted on rules, and its recommendations are well known, though sometimes [intentionally] forgotten by those who are in charge. The judiciary has a decisive role in appointing judges. Only the judiciary knows how to [examine a candidate’s] merit criteria. The interference of other state powers [in the process] is always a danger and a risk.”
Honing in on what he meant by danger, Matos rattled off substantial attacks on judiciaries in a number of countries, including Russia and Turkey, and even EU countries that are nominally democracies, such as Poland and Hungary.
“Turkey and Russia cannot be defined as democratic,” he said. “It’s terribly difficult. That is why [on Wednesday], we will pay homage to a Turkish judge who is still in prison and a Polish judge” who is fighting for the rule of law and independence with Poland’s president.
According to Matos, the president of Hungary has made it clear that “the separation of powers and respect for minorities are not key issues” for him.
“We are facing difficult times even in the European Union,” he said with evident concern. “It is really strange to have these kinds of countries persecuting independent judges.”
The EU’s founding articles make it “very clear that each country should apply the rules of an independent judiciary and the rule of law,” he added.
Fake news on social media
One of the leading problems that seem to be driving attacks on judges and harming their standing with the general public is the mix of fake news and social media, Matos said.
“We are victims of fake news, especially when we are trying to be impartial and independent, if we are deciding against some organization, a big politician or a wealthy political interest,” he said.
When ruling against such powerful people, the judiciary is frequently hit on social media with “fake news; distorted news,” Matos said. “This is ‘kill the messenger,’ not the decision; ‘kill’ [publicly attack] the individual judge or collective judges,” and ignore the decision’s substance and analysis.”
“I think if the society, the democracy in any given country is well balanced, then... all those involved with the powers of the state... should act together to avoid this kind of situation and misinformation,” he said.
In some countries, this is done by removing information that is false “through the intervention of the courts; also, through judicial education [to the public], so citizens can see it and understand the difference” between what judges really do and sound like, versus how some of their rivals might portray them,” Matos said.
“We are victims of fake news especially when we are trying to be impartial and independent - if we are deciding against some organization, a big politician or a wealthy political interest,”IAJ President Jose Manuel Igreja Matos
“Is it [criticism of the courts] perfectly legitimate or something that is only a lie or trying to destroy the authority of the court?” he asked. “The IAJ and other organizations related to human rights have denounced this tendency, especially social-media attacks, on the authority of the courts and the courts’ decisions. This is something that we should continue to denounce – and publicly.”
Effective public outreach
Matos was then asked about whether the judiciary itself needs to change to become more active and effective at outreach to the public. Former British chief justice Lord John Thomas told the Post in an interview that judges should make hearings more accessible on television and should be more willing to interview at least about big-picture issues (not specific cases).
Matos responded: “UK judges have been victims of this kind of behavior [public attacks]. Because of Brexit, there was a crisis with the court. The decision was based on the law,” but those angry with the decision called the courts “traitors on the front pages.”
“Now we know [that the court] was correct with its decision back then, and now everyone agrees,” he said. “But this kind of language is not acceptable.”
Regarding transparency, “more can be done,” he said. “I agree there needs to be transparency for our procedures, and we need to pay particular attention to the way we communicate to our communities: not to comment on a particular decision; intermediate organs can do that. Judicial associations can play decisive roles as intermediaries for the decisions of the courts and public opinion; also spokespersons within the courts.”
“There are many ways to try to achieve transparent information so the public knows what happened and why the court decided the way they did,” Matos said. “Transparency means to be more accountable, especially in modern societies where information is so fast.”
Tel Aviv District Court Judge Yaron Levy, president of the Israeli Association of Judges, said: “We are happy to host the conference for the first time in Israel after a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“The conference is expected to be the largest event in the history of the international association and one of the largest international events held in Israel,” he said.
“The conference makes an important contribution to our status in the international community, and not only from a legal perspective,” Levy said. “I thank the president of the Supreme Court of Israel, Justice Esther Hayut, and the director of the courts, Judge Yigal Mersel, for their contribution to organizing the conference.”