Side Event – “Victim’s right to be heard: How to strengthen victim participation in the Arab World” (hosted by Lawyers for justice Libya))

Overview by Abby Roberts, Research Associate PILPG NL


  • From the perspective of Libyan civil society, the main barriers to victim participation are the lack of utilization of Arabic in preliminary proceedings and on the ICC website as well as the lack of effective implementation of arrest warrants.

  • Potential solutions to alleviate the low levels of victim participation are workshops and extended trainings around what the ICC is and what its processes.

  • There are frustrations within civil society as it has had to pick up the slack on behalf of the court for victim outreach

This side event was a panel discussion hosted by Lawyers for Justice in Libya and centered on the topic of victim participation. The panel members were as follows: Tareg Ben Ramadan - Representative of Libyan civil society, who works in Libya to document war crimes and crimes against humanity; Fadi El Abdallah - Head of Public Affairs Unit at the ICC; Philipp Ambach - Chief of Victim Participation and Reparations Section of the ICC; Alison Smith -  Legal Counsel and Director of International Criminal Justice Program at No Peace Without Justice; Paolina Massidda - Principal Counsel of the Office of Public Counsel for Victims. The panel was moderated by Elham Saudi - Lawyers for Justice in Libya.

Tareg Ben Ramadan’s opening speech was about perceptions of the ICC in Libya and the reasons for these perceptions. He described the victims’ perception of the ICC as relatively distrustful, saying we view this perception in the minimal number of victims that have actually come forward. He cites one of the main obstacles to victims reaching out to the ICC as the language barrier before trial in receiving complaints and admissibility hearings, as Arabic is underutilized. Other barriers include the general lack of understanding regarding what the ICC is and does, as well as navigating the website which is only available in English and French. The barriers to victim participation also impede the ability of civil society to function alongside the ICC. Documentation, which is a role of civil society and vital to the function of the ICC proceedings, is difficult to do given the victims’ distrust of the ICC. He offered the following as potential changes to facilitate victim participation: finding ways to use Arabic in pre-trial proceedings and on the website, capacity building workshops and extended training for civil society and victims regarding what the ICC is and what its processes are, and potentially opening a representative office in Tunis.

Fadi El Abdallah spoke of the ICC’s outreach capacity. He opened by saying that 
public information of the ICC is intended to be accessible on a global scale, and for that reason, French and English are used in court proceedings and on the website. He tries to engage on a pan-Arab level with relevant media sources as well as written newspapers and academia. However, he is the only one on the Public Outreach team that speaks Arabic and recruiting anyone else would require further resources. El Abdallah says the ICC is doing what it can with the resources it receives. With regards to the use of Arabic, he makes the point “If we start with Arabic, why not continue with other languages?”. The ICC simply does not have the resources to do so. Furthermore, the website will need to be updated in future with changing inclusion of the crime of aggression and this will affect the translation.  To try and overcome this, He emphasizes the need to focus the ICC’s limited resources on cases where Arabic is relevant to make the case materials available in Arabic.

Paolina Massidda addressed ways to improve victim participation. She sees this as a problem of what victims know and how we can improve their knowledge. She views this burden as not only on the ICC to make more information available in Arabic but to also find partner organizations that know the ICC to help spread the information. She argued that the ICC needs to find ways to outreach not only in Libya but in the diaspora.  

Fadi El Abdallah then brought up what he termed “the elephant in the room”: warlords are not sufficiently afraid of arrest warrants as they haven’t seen them be effective which makes victims lose trust in the ICC. There is not a motivation for participation if there hasn’t been concrete evidence of the ICC’s efficacy.  

The moderator, Elham Saudi, then spoke on behalf of Lawyers for Justice in Libya. She claims there is a fatigue and a lack of respect for the way the court operates. She, in her capacity in LJL, does a lot of PR for the court which she doesn’t view as the best use of resources. She also spoke on the language barrier, as she acknowledges there are relevant documents in Arabic on the ICC website, but one has to understand English or French in order to navigate the website. She suggested putting a link for Google Translate on the website to aid in its navigation. 

Alison Smith was next to speak and was in agreement raised by Elham Saudi. Alongside the Google Translate link, she suggested crowdsourcing funds for the translation of documents.  She also spoke on the difficulties in outreach, saying that it needs to start in the preliminary stages of proceedings to be effective, and if outreach starts before actual proceedings then engagement is more likely like in the case of Sierra Leon. The states parties have given the Court a mandate to do outreach during the preliminary examinations. If there is a lack of resources to do this, then there needs to be pushback by the Court to get the resources from the states parties that wrote the mandate. 

Fadi El Abdallah responded to Alison Smith’s suggestions. With regards to crowdsourcing, he said that even if the ICC pursues it here would still be a need to verify the translation, which would require comparable resources to just translating it to begin with.  He was not in favor of implementing the google translate link on the webpage, as he said that anyone with a computer had the ability to use google translate on their own. As for outreach in the preliminary stages of the proceeding, he said outreach at this stage is difficult as sometimes an investigation will not lead to anything further.  

The panel was brought to a close with the panelists responding to the following questions of what the Court can do to maximize victim satisfaction and what kinds of arguments would persuade states parties to devote more resources. 

Philipp Ambach responded by saying there needs to be a focus on informal cooperation.  There may be times the Court cannot start engagement during preliminary proceedings due to restrictive resources or policy, but they could do more passive engagement such as training or workshops.  He also emphasized that arguments for more resources need to be framed by what the stakeholders value. 

Fadi El Abdallah gave two options for framing of potential arguments. One would be emphasizing that it is not a request for a huge increase and providing examples that the Court is working to maximize its efficiency. Another potential argument is to remind the states that there were real and genuine problems that drove the creation of the court, and it cannot serve its intended purpose without adequate resources.

Alison Smith concluded the panel with two points: First, being near the situation is important to maximize victim satisfaction, even if the closest that can be achieved is establishing a field office in a neighboring country; and second, that an encouragement for states fronting the necessary funding could be that there may be higher costs in the long-term when you have to build up trust with the victims later.