Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Few Victims Likely to Participate in Sudan Trial

Only the victims of acts of violence cited in the charge sheet for Darfur will have a chance to make their views known to the International Criminal Court.
By Caroline Tosh
Although people who have suffered directly from the violence in Darfur, western Sudan, can apply to take part in any future trial held at the International Criminal Court, an expert on international law has warned that the actual scope of victim participation is likely to be disappointing.



In what has been hailed as a groundbreaking development in international justice, victims are accorded the right to present their views and observations to the International Criminal Court, ICC, and play a role at various stages of proceedings. Their participation is on a voluntary basis, unlike witnesses who are summoned to testify, and they are free to make submissions on issues they themselves feel are important. But in order to be accepted as victims, they must formally apply to the court.



In the case of Sudan, Mariana Goetz of REDRESS, an organisation which seeks reparation for torture victims, said, “Perhaps one of the most important things to remember is that probably participation of victims [in proceedings] will be quite disappointing.”



Goetz, ICC programme adviser with REDRESS, campaigned for the establishment of the ICC, and has worked as a legal advisor at both the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the Special Court for Sierra Leone.



REDRESS works to ensure that the rights of victims are reflected in the procedure and practice of international justice mechanisms. In May, it published a guide to the ICC called “Accountability and Justice for International Crimes in Sudan”, which it drafted in response to questions being asked by people on the ground in Darfur.



At a July 18 seminar in London on accountability for crimes committed in Sudan, Goetz noted that the arrest warrants the ICC has issued against two suspects in respect of Sudan list 51 counts against each, and said that only the victims of those particular alleged crimes will be eligible to participate.



“While there are 51 counts which cover quite a wide range of crimes, the victims who want to participate in those cases…will have to show that they actually are victims of the same crimes in that arrest warrant,” said Goetz.



“While victims of the situation [in Darfur] will be vast, victims in actual cases will be very low.”



In April this year, ICC prosecutors released arrest warrants for former Sudanese interior minister Ahmad Harun and Janjaweed militia leader Ali Kushayb for war crimes and crimes against humanity in relation to events in Darfur. The arrest warrants cover crimes alleged in connection with particular incidents across five locations.



The conflict in Darfur in western Sudan, which has seen more than two million people displaced and between 200,000 and 400,000 killed, has been raging since 2003. It is one of four situations that are now before the ICC.



The authorities in Khartoum have obstructed the work of the court, and an ongoing security threat has meant that ICC outreach and investigations have had to take place outside Sudan.



Goetz said that lack of awareness about the international court left many people in Sudan unsure of its role.



“To date, actually very little outreach has been done by the court. [Outreach efforts for Sudan] have only had a budget as of the year 2007, even though investigations began in 2005,” she said.



“[People in Sudan] can't see anyone present from the court, and haven't necessarily had all the information about the court that they would have liked.”



A report by the Human Rights Institute of the International Bar Association, IBA, published in May, said that “ a stronger presence and more contextual outreach activities are needed in all situation countries, particularly Sudan”.



Goetz added that there was a great deal misinformation in Sudan regarding the work of the court, stemming from the official stance of hostility towards it.



“Because of the nature of the conflict there, the ICC is really considered a tool for foreign intervention and as a result, information about the ICC in Sudan is often misconstrued [or] misinformation. The ICC is often very politicised in the media,” she said.



Abdelsalam Hassan, a London-based human rights lawyer from Sudan who also spoke at the seminar last week, thinks that many of those affected by the conflict harbour unrealistic expectations of the court.



“I think victims within Darfur might have exaggerated expectancies… on what the court can do for them,” he told IWPR.



“I think their initial understanding was that the court was coming to solve the whole problems and to prosecute all the perpetrators, and to bring things to where they should be.”



Like Goetz, Hassan is disappointed with the scale of the outreach work done in Sudan so far.



“Obviously, the court should have made more efforts to reach the victims and the victims' community, to give them the right facts about the courts,” he said. “But having said that, I must also acknowledge the difficulties faced by the court [which is] acting… with strong resistance from the government.”



Hassan added that many victims are illiterate and thus unable to read the documents produced by the ICC.



“The court made an effort to translate most of its related documents into Arabic, but in some cases, this is not enough… because Arabic is not spoken by the whole people in Darfur.”



He thinks it is important that people’s expections of the court should be managed. Many are disappointed that the court has issued arrest warrants for only two suspects thus far - a relatively low-level paramilitary commander and a former interior minister - when senior government officials are widely believed to be responsible for arming the Janjaweed militias.



“This is why there is a need to explain to people that this is not the end of the road; that these are not the only people who are going to be prosecuted,” he said.



Claudia Perdomo of the ICC’s outreach unit said the court does attempt to manage victims’ perceptions of what the court can do.



“In general, expectations are quite high due to the great suffering of the people in these areas. We try to explain that we have limited resources and that our mandate is limited,” she said.



“It is not the objective of the Registry to promote victims’ participation… The aim of the court is that properly informed victims [should] decide voluntarily to file an application to participate in the proceedings.”



Perdomo said that in an attempt to conduct outreach work effectively, ICC officials have visited four refugee camps in Chad – home to thousands of displaced Sudanese people.



They are also in contact with people from Darfur and Khartoum and with Sudanese expatriates in a bid “to reach parts of the population and gather feedback on concerns and misunderstandings about what the role of the court is”.



The court is also working hard to overcome language barriers by employing Sudanese interpreters and outreach officers who speak the Darfur languages Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa as well as Arabic, she said, adding, “We are also developing visual tools to promote an understanding of the ICC, including a complete set of illustrations and posters with no text or very little text and a video to complement the efforts.”



Caroline Tosh is an IWPR editor in London.

More IWPR's Global Voices