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

ICC Struggles to Reach Out to Darfuris

An IWPR investigation shows victims of Darfur conflict remain largely ignorant of the court that’s pledged to deliver them justice.
By Katy Glassborow

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Mohammed Adam Ali Saraj,

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Khalil Tukras,

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As conflict rages in Darfur, few local people are aware of the work being done by the International Criminal Court, ICC, to prosecute those responsible for atrocities committed there, a wide-ranging investigation by IWPR can reveal.

According to our research, even educated Darfuris know little about the ICC and often misunderstand what it is trying to do. Among those who have heard of its work, many are frustrated by the lack of arrests, the slow pace of investigations and the court’s low profile on the ground - described as “invisible” by one victims’ group.

Other findings of the report – conducted by IWPR to gauge awareness of the court in Darfur, as well as to find out what justice means to those caught up in the devastating conflict – suggest justice is not uppermost in the minds of Darfuris. Most are far more preoccupied with the daily struggle to survive in a harsh environment where food, clean water and security are in short supply.

“Eighty per cent of the people do not know and are not interested in the ICC. They’re interested in survival,” one interviewee told IWPR.


Conflict broke out in western Darfur in 2003, when rebels took up arms, accusing the government of neglecting their region, which is the size of France.

Since then, numerous crimes have been committed against innocent civilians. The government in Khartoum is accused of deploying regular troops and paramilitary units drawn from local Arab tribes and known as Janjaweed, not only to fight the insurgent groups but also to terrorise the civilian population and drive them from their villages, thus depriving them of their livelihoods and the rebels of sustenance.

Some 2.5 million have been forced to flee their homes, while more than 200,000 have been killed in a conflict which the United Nations has described as one of the world's worst humanitarian crises, and Washington has called genocide.

Civilians have come under attack from government troops, militia and rebel groups, and the conflict has spilled over Sudan's borders into Chad and the Central African Republic.

In May 2007, the ICC - the world’s first permanent war crimes court, based in The Hague - issued arrest warrants for two suspects in relation to Darfur.

Former Sudanese interior minister Ahmad Harun and Janjaweed militia leader Ali Kushayb are wanted for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the region.

But Khartoum, which has refused to cooperate with the ICC, has said it will not hand over Kushayb or Harun, who is now Sudan’s minister for humanitarian affairs.

The ICC’s prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, told IWPR that he is worried, because he does not believe Harun is there to help the people he displaced.

“Men are being killed and women are being raped, and I am worried about the second phase of crimes. The initial plan was to remove people to reduce support for the rebels, so keeping people in the camps could be part of the same plan by the same people,” he said.

The Sudan government flatly denies accusations that it has backed the Janjaweed militias, and has resisted calls for a UN force in the country.

The government continues to downplay the scale of the conflict in Darfur, and insists it can conduct its own investigations into atrocities, and has set up special courts to this end - which are widely dismissed as a sham.

Meanwhile, the grave security situation - which has forced ICC investigators to conduct their enquiries in Chad and 16 other countries - continues to deteriorate.

At the end of July this year, the UN Security Council authorised up to 26,000 troops from the UN and the African Union in a mixed force to be deployed in Darfur, and also approved the use of force to protect civilians.

But an attack on September 30 in which hundreds of Darfuri militants overran an AU peacekeeping base in a surprise raid - killing at least ten soldiers - suggests peace is a long way off for the blighted region.


As the bitter conflict continues, academics, activists and regional experts continue to debate how best to achieve justice for the victims of violence in Darfur. However, the voices of those most affected by the atrocities have been largely absent from those discussions.

In its investigation, IWPR set out to discover what justice means to Darfuris and what they think of attempts by the international community to hold accountable those most responsible for their suffering.

To find out, its reporters spoke to a cross-section of Arabic- and English-speaking Darfuris based in towns, cities and camps inside Sudan, hearing over crackly phone lines accounts of their lives, their thoughts on justice, and what they wish most for their future.

Many of the people interviewed asked not to be named. One woman said her life would be “very terrible” if her identity was revealed in an article about the ICC and international justice.

The results of this investigation showed that many Darfuris are oblivious of the work of a court that sits nearly 5,000 kilometres away in northern Europe, or have misconceptions about its work and mandate in Sudan.


A lack of information about the ICC on the ground means few people know much about the court, and many harbour misconceptions about its work.

IWPR asked a farmer, who had been driven out of his home and into the Kalma camp near Nyala, in south Darfur, if he’d ever heard of the court. At first he said no, but then changed his mind.

“I have heard about it from some organisation that was talking to the people [about] human rights. They said there is a court for human rights concerning the events that are currently taking place,” said Tiejani Adam Ahmad.

Ahmad said he was leading a “normal life” when the government attacked his village with planes and the Janjaweed came on horses and camels. “A lot of people were killed. We the survivors fled … and from there we settled in the camps,” he said.

Yasir Kondo, who lives in “a small plastic house, one side naked to the air” in a camp for internally displaced persons, IDPs, in Al Fashir, north Darfur, said he didn’t know much about the court either. “You should speak to a man who is a lawyer,” he said. “We do not read about the International Criminal Court in the media. The government tries to keep it out of our mind.”

This limited understanding of the ICC and what it is doing in Sudan is fairly typical among ordinary Darfuris, said Ahmed Gamal Eldin, executive director of the human rights group the Sudan Development Organisation, SUDO, in Khartoum.

“The general understanding is that there is an attempt by the international community to bring people to justice, but apart from this detail there is no knowledge [among] IDPs,” he said.

“Only the elite know something about the ICC. To be honest, even among the elite in Khartoum there is a lack of understanding about what the ICC is and what it is trying to do.”

One clear misunderstanding relates to the role that the 26,000-strong UN-AU peacekeeping force - soon to be deployed to improve security in the region - will play in Darfur.

Many Darfuris we spoke to believe the peacekeepers are coming to take those named by the court - Haroun and Kushayb - to The Hague for trial.

“No one explains to them what the peacekeepers will actually be doing,” said Khalil Tukras, a former NGO worker. “They think they are going to arrest Harun and Kushayb. Their mandate has not been explained, and people think the troops are coming because the government has not allowed the ICC in.”

There are also widespread misconceptions about the number of cases that will ever make it to the ICC. The court is mandated to try only those deemed ultimately responsible for campaigns of violence against civilians, and it is likely that only a handful of suspects will be prosecuted - which will come as a disappointment to many who expect substantially more people will stand trial.

“I think victims within Darfur might have exaggerated expectancies from the court on what the court can do for them,” said Abdelsalam Hassan, a London-based Sudanese human rights lawyer.

“I think that they have full confidence or too much confidence in [the court]. Their initial understanding was that the court was coming to solve the whole problem and to prosecute all the perpetrators and to bring things to where they should be.”

Others may be disappointed when they discover that the ICC statute does not include the death penalty – which, according to Darfuri tradition, is an acceptable punishment for crimes such as rape and murder.

“Whoever kills must be killed. Whoever plunders must be plundered. Whoever loots must be looted. Everyone must be convicted according to the crime he committed,” said Mohammed Adam Ali Sarraj, an IDP in the al Salam camp in north Darfur.


The ongoing conflict and Khartoum’s deliberate obstruction of the ICC’s work make it difficult to inform Darfuris about the court, which has come under fire from NGOs for the limited scale of its outreach work done in Sudan so far.

As the grave security situation forces ICC investigators to work from countries like Chad - where hundreds of thousands of displaced Darfuris have sought refuge in a number of camps - they have no physical presence in Darfur or elsewhere in Sudan.

One person we spoke to said the ICC was “just a rumour, more or less”.

An extensive government-sponsored disinformation campaign, plus censorship and self-censorship, are obstacles to the ICC spreading word of its work among Darfuris.

Newpapers are not widely available and the stories that do exist are often one-sided.

A Sudanese journalist told IWPR that the government-controlled press publishes false information in order to discredit the court.

In the past, the authorities have sought to portray the ICC as some kind of conspiracy between the US and Israel - even though neither country has ratified the court.

“The formal government media portray [the ICC] as machinery for international powers pushing an agenda,” said Gamal Eldin.

In this repressive climate, discussing the ICC is taboo and many are reluctant to do so, which made finding people who were comfortable to speak to IWPR quite a challenge. It also meant we had to be careful over who we approached for views about the ICC, as we did not want to get anyone into trouble for associating with us.

Some who know about the court told us they only feel free to discuss justice issues in camps that are not controlled by the government. Others, however, were afraid to speak openly at all and said they would never attend events or be seen with literature about the ICC.

“They are scared,” said one woman. “If you announced anything of what I said in this interview my life would be terrible in Sudan. Very terrible really, because of security and the government… People can’t talk freely, especially women.”

Journalist Awatif Ahmed Isshag is defying the government and spreading news of the court. She writes about life in Darfur - and the ICC - from her home in Al Fashir.

Her magazine, Al Raheel, used to be a simple affair which she pinned to a tree for those going by to read. Recently, however, it has been distributed nationally - and that has created problems for Isshag.

“Before the government did not have time to come and read [my magazine]. I was just writing very locally,” she said.

However, the journalist said she is coming under increasing pressure to stop writing.

“Now the magazine is national, people start to follow me. Sometimes they say ‘don't write this and don't write that’ and pay close attention to what I am writing,” she said.

“They ask me questions, and soldiers from the government could arrest me and close down my magazine if I talk about the ICC. I keep on writing, but if they shut me down I wait a little bit, and then start writing again.”

It’s not just local people who struggle to talk about justice openly – this is also a major headache for court staff. That it lacks presence on the ground is something the ICC openly admits.

“People want to know why we’re not on the ground? No ICC officials are allowed into Sudan,” said Claudia Perdomo, outreach coordinator at the ICC.

Security concerns do not allow the ICC to publicly report what it is doing in relation to Darfur, but Perdomo insists the court is very active on the outreach front, “We have a strategy to reach out to people as much as possible within our limitations.”

This includes talking to members of the diaspora in face-to-face meetings outside the country and to community representatives in Darfur and Khartoum via email and telephone.

“Through these interlocutors we are able to reach certain sectors of the population and get feedback regarding concerns and misunderstandings about the role of the court amongst Sudanese,” she said.

Communication with people in the region is difficult as mobile networks are often down. Many of those interviewed told IWPR they believed the government turned them off before an attack.

Written material on the ICC has limited use as it is thought that only 60 per cent of Darfur’s population is literate. While the ICC has translated documents into Arabic, not all Darfuris understand this language.

Perdomo told IWPR that to relay information so that all Darfuris can learn about the ICC, the court is using Sudanese interpreters and outreach officers who speak Arabic and the languages of western Sudan.

“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,” she said.

Perdomo acknowledges that Khartoum’s tactics makes it hard for the ICC to engage with Darfuris. But she insists that when the court’s outreach teams do make contact with Sudanese groups, the meetings are productive.

“We explain that the Rome Statute, the ICC founding treaty, was signed by Sudan after negotiations that included Sudan. With some audiences we explain in simple terms the basics of international relations and international law,” she said.

Local NGOs have also attempted to spread the word about the court but say it’s too dangerous to do so within the region.

Tukras, who recently resigned as manager of a local NGO in north Darfur because he wanted to speak about justice and politics, said his group conducted ICC workshops in refugee camps but this was too dangerous in the towns, where government informants are on the lookout for those who discuss the court.

Tukras complained that his agency lacked the support of either the UN or NGOs, which he believes are afraid of alienating the Sudanese government by openly supporting the ICC.

“No one will support us in this work. We are just individuals doing these things. Even if we find donors to support us, they are not willing to speak up to the government,” he said.

He called for more to be done to establish a means of speaking about the ICC.

Several international NGOs have produced literature for victims about the court, and Perdomo’s team uses this to complement their own resources, which include booklets in Arabic explaining the ICC setting out the role victims can play in court proceedings.

“We provide victims with examples of what we can and cannot do, and convey these messages to those representing international organisations present in the camps so that they can explain any questions related to the work of the ICC,” said Perdomo.

But many international NGOs have been forced out of Darfur because of the violence and lack of security, leaving activists there feeling alone and unsupported. “We need to see how to get support to talk about the ICC. There is a lack of capacity here to spread understanding,” said Tukras.


While media restrictions, limited technology and government propaganda have all prevented people learning about the ICC, many Darfuris told us they are too pre-occupied trying to survive in the war-torn region to seek out information on the court.

For those living in the region’s towns, as well as those in IDP camps, there is little semblance of normal life.

Aerial bombardments and attacks by the government in Khartoum and its Janjaweed militia allies are frequent, and the number of IDPs is on the increase.

As more and more Darfuris flee the countryside to seek refuge in urban centres, life there is becoming hard.

A social worker at a centre for victims of torture in Nyala said that towns have become dangerous places.

“It has changed totally in terms of security. The conflict affects not only the IDPs, but also the normal citizens suffer from the violence,” said Fatima Khaltoum, a Sudanese psychologist working to rehabilitate torture victims in Darfur. Her name was changed to protect her identity.

“It is not safe in Nyala town. Anyone can come in and shoot you,” she said.

“There are more than 15 militia groups. People get attacked and killed, but no one knows who did it. Some wear camouflage. Some wear ordinary clothes. It is impossible to identify them.”

Growing unemployment has added to the tension, as African tribes, such as the Fur and Masalit, say they are being overlooked in favour of Arabs.

“They can’t find jobs, because if you’re not a supporter of the government then you can’t get a job,” said Tukras.

One Darfuri human rights worker said some unemployed town dwellers now go to the IDP camps during the day for food and water, then back to their homes.

But many interviewees said that conditions in the IDP camps are also going from bad to worse.

“There is great misery in the camps. There is fear. There are riots. There is rape. There is aerial bombing,” one man told IWPR.

Venturing outside the camps, to collect firewood or cultivate the land, is dangerous. Women and young girls are particularly at risk of sexual violence from the Janjaweed or the myriad of other armed groups roaming the countryside.

Fatima Khaltoum told IWPR that the conflict has become so complex that victims often cannot identify their attackers.

“They are in camouflage and have Kalashnikovs. Now the conflict is so complicated and there are so many groups, it is hard to know whether someone is a bandit or a [militiaman],” she said.

Currently, 7,000 AU troops patrol Darfur in an effort to keep the peace, fending off attacks not only from the warring parties, but also from IDPs frustrated at the lack of security.

The worsening security means that many NGOs have left Darfur, adding to the problems people face.

“I work in a village called Gereida [south Darfur]. It is not under the government, and there are five NGOs, but the people came and attacked the NGOs, so all the NGOs left. They left people without food, firewood and medicine. So the people have started to kill each other to access what medicine and food there is left,” said one woman.

And the security problems that have driven aid workers out are getting worse.

A human rights activist who works in the north and south of the region told IWPR that Janjaweed soldiers who once attacked the African tribes have now turned on each other. He said the latest battles are between the Abbala, who are nomadic camel herders, and Terjem, who raise cattle and farm the land.

Abu Hamed (his name has been changed for security reasons) works in Nyala for the nationwide Sudan Social Development Organisation, an independent NGO. He told IWPR that Arab tribes used to fight together in support of the Janjaweed and government, but now they are fighting each other.

This violence and insecurity, Abu Hamed told IWPR, is affecting a lot of people, “We see a lot of Arabs who are displaced and in the main hospital in Nyala there is everyday more wounded Arabs.”

Since Darfuris of African origin are not the target of this violence, Abu Hamed said “you see the African tribes just watching. They didn’t hide their happiness about what is going on. They say the Africans are the first victims, and now there are new victims”.


Against this backdrop of violence and anarchy, many people question the effectiveness of the ICC arrest warrants issued against Harun and Kushayb five months ago.

When these were first announced, some Darfuris rejoiced - taking it as a sign that the international community was finally intervening to end their plight - but others are disappointed that there have been no warrants against senior government officials.

“People feel it is a good start, but that Harun and Kushayb are being used as scapegoats,” said Khaltoum.

“People in the camps were expecting those higher up, in real command, to be implicated. They thought evidence was collected by the ICC against people higher up the chain of command, and were expecting more than two people to be mentioned. People know that the government is responsible and behind everything. The Janjaweed and government forces are there at every attack. People wanted more.”

Neither Harun nor Kushayb has much support among the Arab tribes, and speculation is rife that the two mens’ lives are now in danger because they know too much about the government’s campaign in Darfur.

“If you bring any mid-ranking leaders to trial or investigation, it might expose the senior people,” said Sudanese human rights activist Hafiz Mohammed.

“One of them is from my home town – Harun. Most of his relatives moved to the capital, because they think that the security people might kill him just to get rid of him, because they are scared. Some of them are really in fear of their lives.”

Not surprisingly, some Janjaweed and their supporters reacted badly to the prospect of one of their number going on trial in The Hague.

“The arrest warrant for Ali Kushayb has been seen as the condemnation of the Arab tribes,” said Gamal Eldin. “And there has been a mobilisation of sections of the community which says the international community is criminalising the Arabs. They have been drawing parallels with what is happening in Israel and Iraq.”

Gamal Eldin believes some Darfuris are sceptical of the warrants. They worry that international pressure to cooperate with the ICC and arrest Harun and Kushayb will make Khartoum “stronger and more extreme”.

The ICC has no enforcement arm, meaning it relies on those who have signed up to the court - the so-called state parties - to carry them out on its behalf.

Those on the ground say the international community and Sudan’s neighbours now should be pressuring the government to make the arrests.

“The only means by which the government will apprehend these people is under international pressure, with sanctions, for example,” said Mohammed. “This is the only means. It's not easy to go inside Sudan and apprehend these people with armed forces ... just like an invasion.”

That is a view shared by the ICC.

“The prosecutor has said that Ahmad Harun and Ali Kushayb will end up in court in the Hague,” said a spokesperson for the office of the prosecutor.

“The court is permanent. We can wait for that day to come. But the victims in Darfur have suffered enough and cannot wait. This is why it is critically important that the arrest warrants are enforced now. The government of the Sudan has the obligation to do so. And the international community should call upon the Sudan to comply with this obligation so that justice can take its course."

Gamal Eldin, however, suggests the ICC try to work with the Sudanese government. “It has to happen through an engagement with the government, [assuring them] that this will be a fair and just trial,” he said.

But there is a general sense of pessimism that the current Khartoum regime will ever cooperate with the ICC.

“They will continue until the last minute to say no,” said Abu Hamed. “Nobody will send anybody from Sudan, and nobody will volunteer and go to the ICC voluntarily.”

“Within the current context, the government will not hand over the suspects, and they cannot be secured by international force,” added Gamal Eldin.

Moreno-Ocampo told IWPR that the Sudanese government has a duty to arrest Harun, “and the rest of the world has to remind Sudan of this obligation”. He added that “we need to keep insisting that the world keeps consistency because if it is a fight between the world and Harun, if the world is united, who will win?”


Some Darfuris interviewed said that traditional methods of administering justice - such as compensation - could be used in addition to the international court.

“Sending people to court and sentencing them to prison has not always been seen as the only way that you can achieve justice and settle a situation,” said Gamal Eldin. “There is a culture of forgiveness and moving on and accepting and recognising crimes.”

But Khaltoum said that these traditional customs - when tribal leaders sat down and solved problems together – would not work in the current chaos.

“The traditional structures have been destroyed,” she said. “In the old days, every village of every region had its own court. But that is hardly existing any more.”

An ongoing obstacle faced by the ICC in bringing indictees to the dock is that Khartoum set up its own court as a foil, and detained Kushayb. The Special Criminal Court on the Events in Darfur, SCCED, was set up in June 2005, one day after the ICC first announced it was to investigate Darfur.

Under its founding statute, the ICC can only move in if a country is unwilling or unable to conduct its own trials - and Sudan claims that it is ready and able to do so.

Khartoum said it placed Kushayb in custody in November 2006, but at the beginning of October 2007, Foreign Minister Lam Akol revealed that he had been released due to lack of evidence.

Human rights groups have condemned the release of a man nicknamed the “butcher of Darfur” by refugees and IDPs, saying that freeing an individual accused by the ICC is another example of the government’s culture of impunity.

International Sudan-watchers have widely dismissed the SCCED as a sham, saying the cases before it have little to do with the administration of justice, and that it is no substitute for the ICC.

Many on the ground share this view.

“The criminals are not going to punish themselves. It is a big job and not logical for the Sudanese government to run a court about Darfur. They are not interested in bringing their own people to justice,” said one man from an IDP camp in north Darfur.

Tukras agreed. “It is a complete waste of time. It is rubbish and nothing,” he said from his base in Al Fashir. “They never did anything about the real problems or look for the real crimes. One of the cases [at the SCCED] was about 75 sheep being stolen.”

Abu Hamed said, “In Darfur, in general, people support anything the government rejects, and oppose anything its supports. People from Darfur are against the SCCED, but supporting the ICC.”

Khaltoum and other Darfuri women interviewed were particularly concerned about the inadequacies of Sudanese laws to deal with rape - a common weapon of war during the conflict.

Sudanese courts use Sharia, or Islamic law, which can impose the death penalty for rape. To secure a conviction, however, four male witnesses are required, which makes it near-impossible for rape victims to prove their unwillingness to have sex.

“The only case of rape where the perpetrator was convicted was when the man confessed,” said Khaltoum.

A woman who works with IDPs in the camps agreed that rape victims get little justice from Sudanese courts.

“A lot of women stay silent because of the shame, but sometimes they go directly to the court. The court takes down some details but nothing happens then. They do not care about dealing with rape cases. The women just wait,” she said.


But the Darfuris who spoke to IWPR are not willing to wait forever for justice.

They accept that for now at least the Sudanese system is unwilling or unable to right wrongs, and many see the ICC as their best option.

“I was talking to someone whose village had been burnt, and he said that people are ready even to walk for days across the border [to Chad] to give witness statements because of the grievances which have happened to these people,” said Mohammed.

“They no longer care about what will happen, because they've already seen very bad things happening to their friends or their families.”

ICC staff, who are unable to speak to victims in Darfur, are keen to reach those who have made it over the border as refugees in Chad.

Perdomo told IWPR that ICC representatives have visited four of the 12 official camps for Darfur refugees in Chad - the remainder are located in security-restricted areas. “Only essential humanitarian staff are allowed to travel there,” explained Perdomo.

ICC staff working in the Chad camps are determining local perceptions, misperceptions and expectations of the ICC with refugees, and assessing how they gather information about proceedings at the court from within the camps.

“We meet the same groups several times and conduct random interviews and surveys,” said Perdomo.

She told IWPR that in general, expectations are high due to the suffering of the people, but that the court has to explain that “we have limited resources and that our mandate is limited”

“There are other actors in the theatre of operations, including the national authorities and other international organisations that have very relevant roles to play. We are just one [operator]…and this is something we try to clearly explain.”

But there’s little doubt that Darfuris are growing impatient for a solution. As one female refugee said, “People want real action.”

“They are talking about why the ICC is taking so long,” said Tukras. “The Darfur crisis has happened very quickly, and they are confident in the ICC, but frustrated about how long it is taking. They are wondering what the benefit would be if Harun or Kushayb were arrested after 10 or 15 years when the victims might have died.”

And there are fears that if the ICC waits too long - if it takes years to get into Sudan - no one else will ever be held accountable for the atrocities there.

Even though the ICC claims it can prosecute crimes in Darfur by gathering evidence and testimonies from victims outside the region and country, many remain unconvinced.

“Evidence won’t last forever,” said Khaltoum. “It is vanishing, and then that is it. This is why the government does not want to grant the ICC access. It is really worrying, because evidence is vanishing.”

Sarraj, who longs to see his country rebuilt and to be able to return home with his children, said his “first and last demand is for security, that war criminals appear before just courts and pay compensation for the harm they’ve done”.

He appealed to the international community to come to the aid of the people of Darfur.

“I hope that this message reaches all the refugees all over the world, and every country that has asylum seekers. We as refugees ask the whole world to take care of us, support us and save us from darkness as soon as possible before we perish, for the government of Khartoum is full of hatred against us,” he said.

For Sarraj, the ICC represents a chance to bring justice to his community.

“Those who committed crimes in Darfur should appear before the just court, the International Criminal Court, in order to clear Darfur of those murderers who expelled, plundered and killed the people there. We were expelled from [our village] naked, barefooted and hungry. They raped our women,” he said.

“We refugees consider the International Criminal Court as the only just court in the whole world. We have learned that those who committed crimes in Darfur will appear before the just International Crime Court. This is one of our demands as citizens of the provinces of Darfur.”

Katy Glassborow and Lisa Clifford are international justice reporters in The Hague. Caroline Tosh is an IWPR reporter and editor, and Daniel Barron is an IWPR intern in London.

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