Overview by Filipe Gomes Dias Costa, Research Associate PILPG NL
This plenary meeting aimed at addressing victim participation and legal representation in the 20 years of existence of the Rome Statute. For the occasion, a panel of stakeholders from the ICC, practitioners, and civil society reflected on what has been achieved since 1998, what challenges remain, and how these challenges can be overcome from a theoretical and practical perspective.
The session was opened with introductory remarks by the moderators, Erica Lucero and Philip Dixon. They underlined that victims should be at the heart of everything we do and that it is both appropriate and necessary to put the issue of victim participation and legal representation in the spotlight this ASP. The panel started with a short film on victims of the LRA in Uganda and their perspectives regarding the ICC cases.
The first panelist was Mr. Hirad Abtahi, head of the legal and enforcement unit. In his speech, he noted that the number of victims applying for participation in proceedings has increased by 10 times in comparison to the initial days of the Court. This poses one of the ultimate challenges of effectiveness and efficiency according to him.
The second panelist to address the Assembly was Fabrício Guaruglia from the Office of the Prosecution, answering how victim participation works at different stages of ICC proceedings. Mr. Guaruglia explained that victim participation mutates through the different stages of proceedings. For example at the preliminary examination stage, the OTP receives information from victim and therefore directly interacts with victims. He highlighted that victims shall not act as party to the proceedings and are actually not prosecutorial assistants since they have their own interest to pursue. Additionally, he underscored in light of the development of the Rome Statute during its 20 years that its provisions are heavily victim-centered.
Philipp Ambach, Chair of victims representation session followed by addressing the practical elements of how to make victims engage with the ICC. An obvious lesson, he mentioned, was that the one month period to receive the views of victims was simply too short. Moreover, engagement with external actors such as NGOs has proven to be essential. Finally, the shortening of the application form as well as the usage of online forms and other digital resources have been proven particularly efficient to make victims engage with the ICC.
Next, Francisco Cox, counsel for victims in the Ongwen case remarked that in the end, financial resources are still the key elements in order to enhance victim representation. Furthermore, victims are often confused by the whole procedure concerning reparations. This may lead to inconsistencies in their statements, since some may exaggerate the injuries suffered when reporting for reparation.
Speaking from the perspective of civil society, Christine Alai pondered that victims normally do not have access to key information on the consequences of the procedure it engages with. In this sense, the Trust Fund for Victims shall play a major role in strengthening the role of victims in order for them not to be seen as mere object and tools for the proceedings. Answering a question from the moderators with regard to challenges to victim participation, Ms. Alai reiterated the importance of recognizing that victim participation is not just a procedural issue but a question of quality, of substance and impact: how can we conduct it so it is meaningful and does not cause further harm. This also implies sufficient resources.
Concluding the exposition of the panelists, Paolina Massida differentiated between the mandates of organizations related to victims that are acting within the ICC system. Moreover, the role of victims is essential not only for the proceedings, but for contributing to ease the deep trauma caused as a result of grave crimes. Answering a question by the moderators as to what the biggest achievement with regard to witness participation has been, Ms. Massida underlined that today it is not disputable anymore that victims have a central place in proceedings.
After the panelists had addressed their issues, the interactive segment of the meeting started, allowing those states present to reflect upon the statements and ask questions. Most notably, Argentina inquired on whether states may contribute to the whole process in any other way than financially. Philipp Ambach and Christine Alai answered that states can provide operational and technical support as well as more engagement of their legal profession. Norway inquired into the use of modern technology for the purpose of victim participation. In response to this question, Ms. Massida answered that this is an important development for victim participation, referring also to the video shown in the beginning of the meeting. FIDH, after stating that wrong conceptions of participation are persistent, urged the Court to reflect on the practice and purpose of victim participation, noting that it is crucial to the efficiency as well as legacy of the Court. A representative of defense counsel, representing Yekatom, also criticized the lack of engagement of members of the defense in the panel and challenged the entwined relation between condemnation of the suspect and reparation for the victims.