Lawyers at the International Criminal Court (ICC) are seriously concerned about the absence of protection for so-called intermediaries who communicate between victims in Africa and lawyers in The Hague.
For the first time in international law victims of war crimes can take part in investigations and trials at the ICC, but lawyers representing those from Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) say the intermediaries they use to contact victims on the ground are in danger because of their work.
Carine Bapita, a lawyer from Kinshasa who represents victims in the case against Thomas Lubanga, told the Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR) that she flew one of her intermediaries out of the DRC when the threats became too serious.
”They are the focal points but most of them are in danger today. I brought the issue before the court but was told there is no provision in any of the rules, so I had to manage by myself and find the money from elsewhere to relocate them. The court does nothing about it,” she said.
Whereas the court offers protection to prosecution or defence witnesses, it does not recognise the need to protect intermediaries, or that they even play a role as a channel for information.
Bapita says that if there were no intermediaries, no victims would appear before the court and no lawyers would be able to represent them, meaning that a fundamental part of the duties of the court could not be performed.
Raymond Brown and Wanda Akin, who represent victims from Darfur, say intermediaries are essential to gaining information from the victims to present to the court and that the system of intermediaries who put lawyers in touch with victims has grown up spontaneously in response to a need that was not being addressed.
Akin and Brown are based in the US but some of their clients are internally displaced people from camps and towns in Darfur.
Since the lawyers are unable to travel into the heart of Darfur, the only way to reach them is through intermediaries.
”Even if we could reach them ourselves, we would put victims at risk by talking to them directly. We need an intermediary who is not only an interpreter, but a countryperson who understands the geography of Darfur and how the conflict unfolded,” said Akin.
While they serve an important role, intermediaries are extremely vulnerable.
Brigid Inder from the Women’s Initiative for Gender Justice helped relocate a number of activists when militia in the DRC began actively looking for people engaged with the ICC or providing the court with information.
”Individuals associated with militia groups have turned up at the houses of some of the intermediaries we work with demanding to see them and for them to provide the whereabouts of other individuals they believe are working with the ICC,” she said.
”Family members of activists are stopped on the road by men and threatened and some of their partners have received threatening emails and text messages.”
The intimidation is not solely directed at intermediaries. Lawyers engaged in ICC cases and their relatives have been targeted.
Bapita — based in The Hague for the Lubanga trial — has had threats made against her and her family in Kinshasa as a direct result of her involvement with the court.
”Already I have received threats and my family is threatened. We have brought these issues before the ICC and have been told that the court’s statute has foreseen nothing about it, so there is nothing the ICC can do,” said Bapita.
Recently a friend told Bapita about an alarming conversation he overheard among a group of Swahili-speaking people in Kinshasa. ”They said bad things about the legal representatives of [Lubanga’s] victims and said they know my house. The night I received that information there was shooting around my house,” she said.
Katy Glassborow is an IWPR international justice reporter in The Hague