What made want to work for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda?
I’d been interested in international law for as long as I’d been at university and I’d heard of the two tribunals that existed — the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.
While I was working in France, I looked on their websites and saw they had internship programs — the paid jobs there are notoriously hard to get into. So I filled out the application forms for both of the tribunals and the one I got was the tribunal for Rwanda.
About six months later I got an email saying “be there in a month’s time” and it took off from there.
It takes them a long time to get back to you. Some of the other interns had been waiting a year or two years to hear back from them. In my intake there were about 30 or 40 interns from everywhere — Sri Lanka, Trinidad, Switzerland, the US, the UK and Ireland. I was one of two Australians.
Where were you based?
We were based in Arusha in Tanzania. It’s a small town and Tanzania is quite poor. But Tanzania is also one of the most peaceful countries in Africa which is why I think they chose to have the tribunal there.
It is quite a small town as it’s not the capital of Tanzania, so it was an interesting mix of UN staff, other charity workers and NGOs staff and then you get tourists who come in from safaris — it’s the closest town if you want to go to Serengeti or any of the big game parks in Kenya.
It’s also at the foot of Mt Kilimanjaro and the local Masaai tribe are often around in the town itself. They are quite distinctive as they wear the tartan robes and carry sticks.
What was your role at the tribunal?
I was an intern in the defence section which is the section looking after people accused of genocide. Defence is the most understaffed section of the tribunal so the interns actually get a lot of responsibility. It was mostly doing research into international criminal law, writing motions, writing legal documents. We also went out to the prisons to visit the accused.
Probably the most exciting thing we did was a 10-day mission to Rwanda to meet witnesses, find out their stories and whether they were willing to testify. We went to almost every prison in Rwanda, we met the families of the accused, we went all around the countryside, and it was often done in secret because it’s not really acceptable to meet the defence team.
What was the most rewarding aspect?
I wrote a motion for disqualification of the bench on the basis of bias for one of our clients, Colonel Bagosora. He’s one of the figures portrayed in the film Hotel Rwanda — the general accused of the killing of the 10 Belgian soldiers.
It was a motion for disqualification of the bench judging his case on the basis of bias, and it was at the end of his case. And it was quite important for his defence because we thought he’d been treated unfairly and his right to a fair trial hadn’t been respected. And at the end of the case I was able to meet him in the court and he personally thanked me. He told me he was really pleased with the motion, that it was really important for his defence and that even though we would probably lose it, it was important for him to be able to say what he thought.
Was it difficult to go there with an open mind knowing you would be representing people accused of genocide?
For me I saw it as defending the right to a fair trial. I’ve always thought that there’s no sliding scale of justice. If we are defending human rights for people who have been killed in the genocide then we can’t turn around and deny it to those accused of causing it. I believe in a right to a fair trial for everybody. So for me it was just as important, if not more important, to uphold their right to a fair trial and I was prepared to do whatever I could to defend that.
The Nuremberg judgments for the Nazi war criminals have largely been dismissed or discounted by history because the defendants weren’t considered to have been given fair trials, so it’s important for the integrity of the judgments of this tribunal that they have a fair trial.
What other insights did you gain?
I learnt a lot about Africa itself. I’d never been there or had any real desire to go there, but what I learnt is the reality is quite different to the situation as described on CNN or Fox.
Even though we are taught the Rwandan genocide was not straightforward, that’s not exactly how it was portrayed in the media. So my experience at the tribunal has probably taught me to be very critical of everything we read and hear and to know that there is always another side to the story no matter how black and white it is portrayed. The stories of the accused are not as straight forward as the media and governments would have us believe.
So coming at things with a critical approach was one of the most valuable lessons I learnt there.
Do you have any advice for people considering something similar?
I’d recommend it to anybody who is looking to do something different before starting a career in commercial law or taking time out to see a different part of the world, as well as anyone who wants a career in international law. It’s a great start to your career and I think the internships are the only way in. You have to be prepared to do some voluntary time before you can expect to get a paid job.
You need to go with no expectations. And the UN itself it often not the most organised and efficient organisation — it can be frustrating at times so you need to keep an open mind. You really can’t come at it with Western eyes, expecting things to be the same as they are in say San Francisco or Sydney. You need to make allowances for the fact that this is one of the poorest countries in the world and not getting frustrated or angry with it.