James Joseph is a UK staff correspondent for JURIST. He files this report from The Hague.
Following on from JURIST’s breaking news from Friday last about the legal defence staff of the International Criminal Court launching a historic strike over labour rights and pay disparity, I offer this personal account from the literal front line of this unprecedented action, which is not entirely unrelated to walkouts and demonstrations among other legal defenders internationally, from the UK to Canada and beyond.
I arrived at the World Forum center in The Hague Monday to see around a dozen or so lawyers standing with placards reading “Fighting Justice while being denied basic rights”, “Legal Aid Support Staff needs support” and “No fair trial without strong defence”. I spoke to several picketing defence staff to discuss why they are striking and the responses they had received from the Court. Three of the advocates volunteered to speak anonymously. I asked them why they were striking, about their personal motives, and about what they hope to achieve through their action.
The first defence advocate I spoke to said: “So, myself, I’m striking because I’ve been at the court now for almost seven years, and I’ve we’ve been raising these issues publicly for at least five I think. There was a public letter about harassment or the lack of a framework for harassment. We’ve seen that the court has responded a little bit on the harassment issue, but everything else just keeps getting kicked down the road year after year after year. At the present moment, you know, there’s a draft legal aid policy on the table, but it seems it won’t be adopted until next year, which means that anything that’s in there wouldn’t come into effect, probably until 2025-2026. Some of us won’t even be working here at that point. And it seems the systems which are supposed to be in place to address these things simply don’t seem to be working. And this [labour action] seems to be the only way that we can possibly get the issue on the table, hopefully, and get people to take notice.”
I followed up by asking if they’d had much of a reaction from those at the top or from those who can listen.
“I think so far we’ve seen reserved support. It’s obviously difficult because it’s such a diplomatic arena right here, because the Court itself is quite a complex entity. I would say that currently the president said something nice today about the importance of support staff, the president of the Court, but I haven’t seen it. But I think the nature of these issues is often that they all happen behind closed doors. And that’s perhaps why bringing [all this] into the public is so important at this stage because you know, people will promise us things behind closed doors, and then next year, nothing happens. So more needs to be done.”
A second person on the picket line said “So I first started at the ICC in 2013. So it’s been about 10 years. The thing is in defence or representation of victims, we don’t have work contracts. We just have a letter of appointment. The letter says our salary and the fact that we are under the responsibility of the Council. So basically, we have no protection, no sick leave, no parents leave or maternity leave. There is no provision for a pension or health insurance. We have no annual leave or holiday entitlement as public defenders. So we are just subjected to the goodwill of our Counsel. So, if they want to fire us there is no provision to give us notice, nothing at all. They can just say well, tomorrow you are fired and just the same goes for if we want some days off; and all of us standing here today are in our 30s.”
I followed this up by asking how many of those outside the court had children, and was surprised to be told “almost no one, because we are in such condition that it’s impossible to raise a family” with their salaries linked to the legal aid policy.
This particular advocate continued: “So because the clients are in need, we are paid by the Court. It’s a fixed salary depending on your position. And then we have to pay everything with this salary. We have to pay for our rent, but also we have to to pay into our own pension, for our own health insurance should we become sick. We have absolutely no provision for support included in this salary… this is a difference between representatives of victims and those in the prosecution. They have all this protection and on top of that there they have a lot of advantages. We’re not even asking for all those. So yeah, it’s a bit difficult after all these years at the ICC and still being treated like this.”
A third advocate hammered this issue home, speaking more on the lack of provisions and protections. “We are supposed to be a court that is bound to the highest standards in respecting human rights and that works to uphold human rights protection, but we don’t have that. The fact that our salaries have frozen since 2013. This means that when prosecution gets a raise every year, we are stuck to this, to our 2013 salaries. Especially this year with inflation it’s been very difficult. Other [i.e. Prosecution] staff are going to get a five percent raise in May and for Defence staff we don’t have those raises.
I asked the advocates to outline for me what how they would escalate this, or what the end game would be if the International Criminal Court does nothing about this issue.
One of the advocates said: “The main concern is about justice. Like you can’t have a fair trial without a strong defence. And I think now because of the working conditions, everybody is saying one year, two years, three years, but at some point, they need to leave because they want to have a family, build a life and earn money. They want to have social protection. We are living abroad, mostly as advocates from all over the world, so it’s also difficult for everybody. To keep us we need to have working conditions that are better than if we were in our home country.”
She then highlighted her working conditions in a shocking revelation: “I had a child two years ago, and I stopped working five days before giving birth. And I didn’t even know if I would be able to pay the medical bills. I gave birth without knowing if I could pay the bills. And after that, I mean, the daycare is so expensive. It’s 1500 euros per month with the pension and everything, it’s like I have no real salary. To be honest, I’m reading every single month to look for another job because under these working conditions, it’s not possible. So something must change or I won’t be able to stay even if I really love the job. I don’t think it’s possible to have very strong support for the rule of law and put the client first without a very good prosecution and a very good defence.”
My final question was: “What next? What will you do?”
One of the women said: “Well, we don’t really know because we are really passionate about our work. That’s why we are here. We love it. We love working at the ICC but the conditions are really, really poor. So now I know I want kids so I am thinking I am going to leave soon, even if I’ve been here for so many years. I guess it’s really a shame if people that have a lot of experience just quit because you lose the institutional knowledge of the case.”
Another said: “It’s bad, it’s really bad. But right now we are demonstrating the whole week and trying to raise awareness with those like yourself at the ICC Assembly of States Parties. We are going to do keep doing some action, keep talking to people, keep trying to litigate also, talking to the registry and trying to improve our work conditions. We won’t stop here and just stay silent for another year. You know, we will keep the whole next year demonstrating and doing some actions and striking if we have to.”
Another said: “I can answer the question. I don’t think I will stay either if nothing changes, but it won’t. It won’t be only because of the working condition, but even more because I can’t stay in an institution like that. The United Nations but also ICC were created to uphold justice and have so many values normally that I like, but denying those who work to defend those values fair pay, and working conditions… [is wrong]. At a certain point it becomes offensive that they treat us with such contempt, that we’re sort of seen these people who cannot be seen with them in the [World Forum] building [note: the demonstrating advocates were barred from going inside to offer information about their action]. It’s hard to believe, having worked in the institution, all of us for many years. They know us, they see us every day. Maybe not at the Assembly of States Parties but that’s a slightly different question. They know we behave ourselves, to put it mildly, but we are treated like animals. All of a sudden you become the enemies of the people. Somehow we’re sort of persona non grata, that’s exactly what we are.”
Another said: “We have a long way to go from here. I don’t know because this is unprecedented to my knowledge, and the international tribunal system has gotten to this point where, after years and years and years, nothing happens. In the international system, I don’t think the Defence has ever [done anything like this]. I think I’ve heard stories of one thing at the ICTR or ICTI that got shut down very quickly. So we’re hoping that such an unprecedented event [like this] will actually lead to a proper outcome and lead to bringing the institution to understand where it’s failing itself. But it’s hard to say where we take it from here.”
The interview concluded with this open question. The advocates ask that I will inform the international media, in hope that in a few months time things will change. If not, they expressed that hope that we would not forget them and that I would come back and speak with them again.