The ICC Up Close
IWPR trainee who reports on ICC-related issues in eastern DRC pays visit to The Hague to witness firsthand the trials she follows back home. By Passy Mubalama - International Justice - ICC ACR Issue 288, 17 Feb 11
I was shivering out of both joy and fear when I landed at Schiphol airport: joy at arriving in the home country of the International Criminal Court, ICC, but also fear that I was so far away from home, in unfamiliar surroundings.
Everything was new to me. People’s faces didn’t look familiar. I had never seen escalators before.
I was very tired when I stepped out of the plane, and I was dreaming of having a hot shower and some sleep.
But the reception I received from the immigration officials changed all that. Although I had a Schengen visa, which should facilitate travel within the European Union, they raised questions about my plans to spend some weekends in France, Belgium and Norway.
“Africans do not understand how the Schengen visa works,” the immigration official said. “To have one does not mean free travel in the Schengen area. You have to show other guarantees that you are not going to run away and stay in this country you plan to visit.”
I was detained for six hours at the airport. This made my sense of isolation even worse. Since my cell phone did not work here, I could not get in touch with anyone in the outside world. I felt as though I was trapped half-way between Africa and Europe.
The relief that I felt when I was finally allowed to leave was immense.
One of the hardest things to adjust to in The Hague was the temperature. There was never any sun. When a little ray n would appear, everybody became so excited about it. It didn’t seem to matter that the temperature remained bitterly cold.
I was especially looking forwards to visiting the ICC: this great international court that was really starting to cause trouble for the big fishes in my home country.
As a Congolese journalist that has been closely following the ICC, I had so many questions about it.
I was curious to know how journalists covered the trials. Did they have the occasion to talk to the victims, the prosecution lawyers and the defence teams? How was the ICC able to conceal the identity of witnesses and victims?
Once in the public gallery, I was pleasantly surprised to see how diverse the courtroom was.
I had thought that only men would be involved in the proceedings, as is usually the case in the DRC. But, in fact, I counted more women than men.
Moreover, the women occupied very important positions, like Judge Sylvia Steiner from Brazil, Judge Joyce Aluoch from Kenya and Judge Kuniko Ozaki from Japan.
I also noticed how many different nationalities there were in the courtroom.
I used to think of the ICC as a courtroom full of white people, where the big judges and lawyers were Europeans. But the diversity of nationalities I saw changed my views about that. It also helped to reassure me that whatever verdict the court came out with would be fair.
Entering the room, I was very curious to see the defendant Jean-Pierre Bemba face-to-face. The last time that I saw him was in 2006, when he was campaigning for the presidential elections. This was indeed a very different setting in which to see him.
I wondered what he was feeling after all these years spent so far from his family; and what he thought about the unfolding of the trial and the upcoming elections in his home country.
But I knew that I would never be able to get to talk to him, to ask him these questions.
Ever since I started following the ICC, a question had been nagging at me. It is the same question that most Congolese, not to say Africans, have.
Why have only African cases been brought before the ICC? Are there no serious crimes being committed in Europe, Asia and America? Is this court only meant to render justice in Africa? If it is, then why call it an “international” criminal court. Why not call it the ACC – the African Criminal Court?
This was the perfect place to find the answers to these questions.
On my last day in The Hague, I got the opportunity to meet Caroline Maurel, from the court’s outreach unit, and she admitted that it is an ongoing battle to convince Africans that the court is working in their best interests.
The court is very focused on the Congo. Thomas Lubanga, Germain Katanga, Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, and Jean-Pierre Bemba are all Congolese citizens.
Even the newest detainee at the court – Calixte Mbarushimana – has a Congolese connection. Although he is Rwandan, the crimes that he is alleged to have committed took place in North Kivu, my home province.
There remains a huge gap between the ICC and Congolese people, which I fear one day could lead to misunderstandings and protests among the latter. Many believe that the ICC is very political, and this undermines people’s confidence in the court.
So I was pleased to hear that the outreach unit is taking this issue seriously, and reaching out to local journalists like me in order to explain to ordinary Africans what the court is trying to achieve.
Passy Mubalama is an IWPR trainee based in Goma.